Provide support after the loss of an officer
It goes without saying that the loss of an officer is devastating on many, many levels. Generally, the first few weeks and months after the loss are emotionally intense and acutely painful; often indescribably so. It’s important to remember, however, that although time passes the need to provide support and understanding to those most closely affected remains, even years after the incident.
Here are a few things to keep in mind after time passes following the loss of an officer:
There is no time frame for mourning.
It’s important to remember that although experts have defined certain stages of mourning after loss, it’s crucial to remember that each person is different, and there is no defined span of time for when someone will come to grips with a devastating loss and "move forward." To even allude to the idea that after a certain period of time, a surviving loved one should be "over" a loss can be devastating, so don’t go there. Be there for support and gently look for signs of emotional progress and encourage them, but don’t make a conclusion as to when an intense mourning period should end.
Be aware of reminders.
These can include what are termed "anniversary" reminders, which is typically the date of an incident during which a loved one was lost, and "situational" reminders, which are triggered by exposure to a situation or location similar to or identical to that surrounding a loss. Be aware that these emotional triggers are common among those who have lost loved ones and be particularly alert to signs that the survivor is having a difficult time. At the same time, be cautious not be the catalyst for the trigger (i.e., making a phone call to say, "I know today was the day Mike was killed. This must be a horrible day for you. I wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you.") Maybe consider making an extra visit that day or simply reaching out to say hello.
Something else to keep in mind is the impact the media can have on a surviving family. Even if they might mean well, anniversary retrospectives focused on a tragedy can be very difficult for spouses, children and others who were stricken by the loss, particularly if it surfaces unexpectedly. Consider reaching out to media representatives in the area and remind them of this as an anniversary date approaches. Perhaps they will at least clue you in to when or if something might air so you can gently clue the family in.
Get involved…then STAY involved.
One of the unfortunate realities surviving family members have reported experiencing after a line-of-duty loss is a sudden flood of support from fellow officers, neighbors, department support personnel, clergy and others followed by an increasingly noticeable draught as time passes. For the first few months, even a year after an officer is lost, fellow officers and other make it a noble point to help the family in any way they can and to stay in contact. Then, as life goes on and things get busy, the support drops off. This isn’t to say things shouldn’t get "back to normal" to some degree. They should. But remember that with the loss comes an on-going need for friendship, support and availability to help. This is particularly true with children. If you step up to support a child who has lost a parent, remember that this is a long-term and life-alerting commitment for both of you. If you pick up the ball (and please do), don’t drop it!
Something else to remember is that, as many of you will attest to, a life in law enforcement can become all encompassing. Surviving spouses have reported that not only did they experience the loss of their loved one, but also the loss of the "police family" with which they used to meet regularly when fellow officers invited each other over for a barbeque or they attended departmental social events.
Remember that grieving goes beyond the immediate family
Line-of-duty deaths send shock waves not only through immediate families, but through entire agencies and communities. Keep that in mind and consider who else might be grieving the loss and how you might offer them compassion, understanding and support. Think of partners, training officers who taught the downed officer, officers from neighboring agencies, schools or other groups with whom the officer may have worked and become known, and anyone else who may have been particularly close to the officer, or the police in general, and may have been noticeably impacted by the loss.