One police widow’s unique safety crusade, and lessons she learned about surviving loss…
When Maryanne Pope, the widow of an officer who was killed in the line of duty, was traveling in Portugal as part of her effort to put grief behind her, she spotted a bit of graffiti scrawled on the side of a building: Without truth you are the loser.
If that’s the case, Pope is clearly a winner.
In a remarkable, can’t-put-it-down book called A Widow’s Awakening, she lays bare the raw, painful, and sometimes embarrassing truth of what it means to lose a “soul mate love” to the hazards of law enforcement — including the wrenching truth that her husband didn’t have to die the way he did.
Having exposed her most intimate thoughts and experiences during the worst time in her life, she is now focused on turning the tragedy of his death into a positive benefit for other cops, as well as firefighters and EMS personnel.
In a recent interview with PoliceOne, Pope talked about her unique public safety campaign, the cathartic process of publicly revealing her grief and self-examination, and the hard-learned lessons she offers for others coping with loss.
“Police officers usually approach my book feeling that they wouldn’t want their spouses to read it because it’s about their worst nightmare,” Pope says. “But by the time they’re finished, they understand that what I went through can help someone else in that situation know they’re not alone and they’re not crazy.
“Most important, it can give them hope that they can enjoy life again.”
Pope thought she never would after Sept. 29, 2000. Early that morning, near the end of his shift, her husband, Cst. John Petropoulos, a four-year veteran of the Calgary (Alberta) Police Service, responded to an alarm call signaling a possible B&E at a warehouse. Searching the darkened premises with K-9 handler Darren Leggatt, Petropoulos climbed a ladder to a mezzanine level.
Initially, the flooring there was solid under his feet, but unbeknownst to Petropoulos, part of the mezzanine was unsupported from below — a false ceiling for the lunchroom under it. With no railing or other marking to indicate the transition point, he unwittingly took the last step of his life from solid to flimsy flooring — and plunged nine feet to the concrete surface below.
His legs hit the back of a chair, thrusting his upper body violently downward. The back of his skull smashed against the concrete. His brain was a “tossed salad,” Pope writes. He died of irreversible cerebral damage the next day. The call, as it turned out, was a false alarm.
Pope, who was then working as a report transcriber for the Police Service, was hurled into a free-fall of her own. Having been married to a cop for four years, it felt “as if I always knew this day would happen,” she writes of the fatality. But she had no anticipation of what sudden widowhood at the age of 32 would be like.
She got a taste from the shock of hospital staff lobbying her for transplant permission, including bids for John’s skin and kneecaps, while she was still hoping that a miracle would save him. “Honestly, I want to tell them to fuck off and go find somebody else’s husband to mine for body parts,” she writes.
Then there were conflicts with John’s Greek Orthodox parents and priests from the church over funeral and burial matters and the dictates of the Police Service over how his pomp-and-circumstance memorial commemoration would be conducted, with her relegated essentially to the role of passive observer.
But most memorably described in A Widow’s Awakening are some of the unexpected oddities of early mourning as she faced the reality that John “will never sleep beside me again, or empty the change from his pockets onto the counter.”
She brushed her teeth with his electric toothbrush. She used his shampoo and soap — “personal items he’ll never touch again.” She wore the “flowered Hawaiian shirt he liked to barbeque in and his blue plaid boxer shorts” around the house. She constructed “a photographic shrine to our life together” and a “death scrapbook” about his passing. “Hanging out at his grave,” she took to smoking the wine-tipped cigars he used to like. She slept on his side of the bed, rested her head on his pillow, fell asleep clutching his badge to her breast.
During the first months of living alone (they had a dog, but no kids), the present seemed like “hell on earth,” and her future loomed ahead “like a 65-year prison sentence,” Pope writes.
At times behind the collected and rational front she struggled to present to outsiders was evidence of a careening mind. On several occasions, she saw “signs” that John made supernatural visits to their house. She became fixated on the belief that seven months after his death, she would die. She contemplated deliberately hastening that moment so she could be quickly reunited with him in Heaven, while at the same time she developed romantic fantasies about his close friend and immediate supervisor. During a period she now considers the most embarrassing and bizarre, she vacillated between believing that John was the Second Coming and that she herself was.
And through the lonely days and nights, there were “hours of crying” and a debilitating brew of “sorrow, fear, doubt, anger, confusion and self-pity simmering below the surface.”
On the day of John’s funeral, Pope had slipped a handwritten note into his casket, a “contract” of sorts in which, honoring her abiding love for him, she promised to “find some good” in his death.
The first step in that tortured journey, she reflects, was writing about the shattering of her life. John had always prodded her to reach for her dream of becoming a writer…but before his death she’d always found excuses to procrastinate. Now she started journaling with a vengeance, sometimes writing 12 to 14 hours a day while “facts, feelings, interpretations, conversations were still fresh in my mind.”
Sometimes profane, often sardonic, always fearlessly candid, the manuscript that accumulated during her first year of bereavement was reworked perhaps 20 times, she estimates, and ultimately crafted into A Widow’s Awakening. Across the arc of the book, you see a sense of purpose and healing begin to take hold.
One turning point was an exchange with her father that occurred during a dog walk. She spoke of her obsessive feeling that there had to be a reason for John’s “tragic death.” To her surprise, her father said he considered it an accident, not a tragedy. “What you do with your life from here on in is what will determine whether [John’s] death was a tragedy or not,” he said.
She retorted that “an accident is something that could not have been prevented — like getting hit by a meteor.” John’s death was “a case of cause and effect: no safety railing [to warn of the false ceiling], no husband.”
As she mulled the conversation over time, however, her annoyance morphed into her “awakening.” John’s loss of life and her loss of life as she expected it to be could have meaning, she decided, if their ordeal could somehow become a springboard for helping to protect other public safety personnel.
After John’s death, three of his recruit classmates — officers Cliff O’Brien, Joel Matthews, and Glenn Laird — had founded the nonprofit John Petropoulos Memorial Fund and sold commemorative pins in his memory, initially raising some $12,000. They asked Pope to help decide how the money should be spent. Together they settled on working to educate the public about workplace safety from an emergency services perspective.
“Police, fire, and EMS are accustomed to going into environments that are dangerous because of the people who may be in them,” Pope explains. “But there are thousands of unnecessary risks being imposed on emergency services people every day because of unidentified or uncontrolled physical hazards they aren’t aware of when they enter the premises.” These can range from lack of safety railings to perilous clutter to improperly stored chemical waste.
“People who work in these places during regular hours may know how to avoid these hazards. But emergency responders entering poorly lit, unfamiliar surroundings under stressful, crisis circumstances can easily be injured or killed, just as John was,” Pope says.
Among its first projects, the JPMF partnered with other funding sources to produce two public service announcements for television in the U.S. and Canada — one about building safety and the other urging motorists to slow down when passing emergency personnel on the road.
Next month [9/09], the Fund plans to release a new series of professionally produced, 30-second PSAs, as well as a powerful 7-minute video documentary called Put Yourself in Our Boots. The video, which includes compelling stories of police, fire, and EMS personnel who have encountered unnecessary environmental risks, will be available in DVD format with a workbook and other support material and also as a free download from the Fund’s website: www.jpmf.ca. The road safety PSA, called SLOW DOWN: It’s No Picnic out Here, is also available for download there and has been “tremendously popular with police all over North America,” Pope says.
Managing the growing campaign and appearing frequently on the speaking circuit has helped rekindle her enthusiasm for life, Pope says. “The Latin meaning for the word widow is ‘empty.’ But I am NOT going through the rest of my life defined as a hollow vessel.”
For others who may be suffering through a period in which they feel like nothing more than “something left behind” after a significant loss, she offers some suggestions, learned through her personal travail:
1. Take a break and get away. “Putting your life back together after suffering a loss is the most exhausting job you’ll ever have,” Pope says. “Many people won’t understand this, but know that you have to give yourself a rest now and then.
“Travel, even if it’s just going to a weekend retreat with a friend. Start to see the bigger world again. You’ll come back with a different slant on things. Home is filled with what will never be again, and if you stay there without relief you can lose your perspective and head onto a dark trail.”
2. Choose healthy coping mechanisms. “Eat well, sleep lots, find someone to talk to, whether it’s a friend, a professional, or a support group. Be wary of excesses — improper eating, drinking, workaholism. You have a huge void to fill in your life. Be careful what you fill it with.”
3. Exercise. “It’s a proven reliever of stress and depression. It gives your mind a rest. I took a dancing class and I had to concentrate on the steps I was learning. It was one hour a week that I was not thinking of John’s death.”
4. Accept kindnesses. “If people ask you what they can do to help you, tell them. Maybe all you need at that moment is a hug. Maybe you just need someone to listen to the ‘stuff’ that’s in your mind. Maybe you need the garage cleaned out or someone to take the kids for the weekend.
“Small things can be huge gifts, and the person who’s asking will feel good about giving them.”
5. Believe that you can be happy again. “I never thought I would be, but I am. I’m not married, I have no children. Those are not doors that opened for me, so I had to find new doors. You can find joy in ways you never thought you would.
“It can become a lifestyle to live in the past and grieve for what could have been, using grief as an excuse to stay sad for years. But that doesn’t make for a very happy world.
“Take what happened as a wake-up call. If something in your life needs changing, change it. At the end of the day, you have to reach down and pull up your own bootstraps. You have to deal with what happened, and you may have to do a lot of work to get better.”
A Widow’s Awakening is available through Amazon.com or direct from the publisher, Pink Gazelle Productions Inc. at www.pinkgazelle.com.