How to grieve, cope, and get back to work after a traumatic event

How do we carry on? First, understand that we must. The officers who have fallen demand it


Updated on 6/3/2014

By Aaron Westrick, Ph.D.
​Police Magazine

Hundreds of our own were murdered on Sept. 11, along with thousands of citizens we were sworn to protect. Terrorism struck the nation, particularly emergency response personnel. This nation’s police officers have been damaged by these criminal acts of terror; we have been damaged as a group and as individuals. Police make very poor victims, yet we were all victimized. What can we do to continue our fight against criminality in all its forms without being further damaged by these events?

Symbols As the symbol of legal force in our society, we stand for those who value order and peace. It’s no secret to us there are people who will kill others in order to accomplish their goals. In our world people do things based on motives and we know many people who have motives (real and imagined) to murder. That’s why intelligence is such a big part of 'the job' — we try to calculate what is going to happen by knowing our enemies.

Some of us expected a massive terrorist act; we just did not know where or when it might occur. In a way, the carnage did not surprise us, but we do not like to lose to terrorist-criminals. We have lost many brother and sister officers, but we have not lost this battle.

The process of understanding the grieving process we are going through is important to continuing our lives in a positive fashion. Being a thousand miles from the violence, my first reaction to the terror was a rationalization that it could not possibly be that bad. Then I saw the pictures of the towers collapsing and the Pentagon burning. I knew then that there must have been a great number of officers inside. The raw feeling of fear for those involved and the whole nation was engulfing; somehow this could not possibly be true.

As my feelings turned to anger I found myself reviewing my training and checking my emotional and physical weapons. My thoughts turned toward what I would have done in those situations. Because of our 'protector' personality I found myself asking, How could I have prevented this terror?' While not being realistic, I knew these feelings were normal and healthy. The realization then struck that I would have done exactly as our brothers and sisters did. Our knowledge of the explosive strength of fully fueled airliners is scant, yet our will to respond to tragedy and preserve life is great.

The acceptance of this terrorist event has set in and the personal preparation for the next act of violence has begun. This policing vocation we have chosen encompasses a broad area of knowledge. These terrorists have killed my sisters and brothers and citizens I was sworn to protect. Knowing how 'we' think and act I know many of you were going through the same thought process. We (cops) are very territorial; we protect our towns, counties, states and country. The terrorist attacks have suddenly made the whole nation our district, our beat, if you will.

I know that if I had been on the job with the NYPD on September 11 at the World Trade Center, I would have been going up the stairs as citizens fled down them. I also know I would have been alongside most of you. We would have given the ultimate sacrifice for others, as our partners have throughout history.

What's Next? So how do we carry on? First, understand that we must. The officers who have fallen demand it. We are also obliged to learn from these horrific events in order that we may preserve lives in the future. In order to grieve, learn and carry on as protectors of our society, I suggest the following time proven coping tactics (your weapons against the stresses):

• Maintain your positive routine of health and well being. Don't sacrifice your emotional or physical health in the name of our fallen partners. You can grieve as I do, usually as I am ending my workout, physically drained. The thought of our fallen patriots gives me a little extra energy, which I dedicate to the victims' memory.

• Take the time to review the incident from the police perspective. What can we learn? Do not let our partners die in vain; vow never to forget the sacrifices your fellow officers have made for you.

• Use terrorist events as a reason to intensely train, practice and rehearse emergency procedures and defense. If you are not prepared, whom can we count on?

• Do something to help the situation, no matter how miniscule it may seem. I will have one less soft drink when I meet with my police friends and donate the money to a police charity. Perhaps the whole group will? A toast to the fallen.

• Inoculate yourself to the terror you will see in the future: It is a sure thing. You are the frontline; the blood will be at your feet and could be yours. Do not be surprised.

• Talk about how you feel with other responsible and healthy cops. If your head is not on straight, you will lose sight of the goal. Be prepared to listen. Get professional help if you are feeling abnormally anxious or depressed.

• Take the time to strengthen your relationship with other emergency service workers. Their level of dedication to preserve life has matched ours. Being on friendly terms with the 'smoke-eaters' and 'docs' can only help you (and them). The American public has come to realize a new evil through these attacks. Evil, be it a 'being' or process, is something police understand. We should always remember the two most damaging falsehoods spread by evildoers and criminals: The first is that evil does not exist, so we will go forward naively to be victimized.

The second is that evil is everywhere, so we will destroy our individual freedoms. Go protect and preserve the rights of the citizens of this great land but remember that evil is not everywhere. Indeed, it is in the minority. We know that as long as we share the valor of the cops who have gone before us, we live.

As police officers we toe the line between the complacent and tyrannical. We remain alert to prevent as much violence as possible, yet recognize and fight for the freedoms of our society. Throughout this renowned act of terror we all experienced the emotions of disbelief, fear and anger. It is important now that we go forward with positive action to heal ourselves and provide security to those we protect.

So that others may live, we charge toward terror and into crumbling buildings, just as our partners did on September 11, 2001.

Dr. Westrick has been a cop for over 20 years and is a recognized expert and police advocate. His expertise is "police phenomenology" -- the study of how police officers interact, act and interpret meaning. Dr. Westrick's areas of expertise include the use capabilities/ application of body armor, use of force issues and officer actions during/after violent assault.

This article is reprinted with permission from Police Magazine, online at www.PoliceMag.com.

  1. Tags
  2. Terrorism Prevention and Response
  3. Health - Physical and Mental Fitness
  4. Evergreen

Recommended Patrol Issues

Join the discussion