06/01/2006

A Survivor’s Story

By Vicki Jeffries

It seemed like every other summer evening when the police dispatcher broadcast a call that a suspect had just shot a little boy and fled the scene. Two patrol officers in the area recognized the suspect vehicle as it drove by their traffic stop. The officers pursued him until he jumped from his car and escaped on foot into a residential area. Both officers chased him on foot, one taking the west route behind the house, the other taking the east. Emerging from an overgrowth of plants in the yard, the younger of the two officers was the first to encounter the suspect who had been hiding in the brush, waiting for his arrival. The suspect fired, hitting the officer three times. The officer returned fire and fell to the ground. As others arrived, he communicated the direction of the suspect’s escape.

He lay bleeding on an old wooden door from wounds to his shoulder, leg, and hand. Officers knelt by his side and clasped his hands as they encouraged him to hold on, but he complained that he couldn’t breathe. He said he felt like he wasn’t going to make it. He asked them to call his wife. She was working as a civilian clerical assistant in the department and would be expecting him to come home soon. She was also seven months pregnant with their first child and would be terribly worried.

An ambulance arrived to transport him to the nearest trauma facility, but he lost consciousness en route and was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.

It has been almost nine years since that summer night, yet the details remain as vivid as they were before—from the grim expression on the young officer’s face who stood guard duty at the hospital entrance, to the tiny smear of blood on my husband’s hand that only hinted at his violent end. Surviving that night, and at times over the years since, has been seemingly impossible.

When my husband died, I was devastated. He was everything to me. We had plans for the future, a baby on the way and we had just bought our first home. We had been fixing it up in preparation for our new arrival. Now, it seemed everything was left incomplete—our house, our family, our lives. People reached out to us and helped us in many ways, but there was no way to really fix what had happened. I spent the first few years after his death caring for my baby and working long days around the house, until I was so tired I could fall effortlessly to sleep at night. I slept on the floor for many months, anywhere near my baby, so that when I woke up from the nightmares I could see his precious little face. Those were difficult times. As years passed, my outlook grew increasingly more hopeful. While there has definitely been a number of challenges and setbacks, I was more or less determined to get by—after all, I had a son to raise.

My son is now a healthy and happy eight-year-old. Our lives are blessed. I feel I have made a lot of progress in my coping, but know there is always more to come. I’m now ready to share some aspects of my journey that I believe are useful to other survivors in helping to maintain a realistic perspective of coping with law enforcement death.

I think it is important to understand that the coping process often changes over time. Since law enforcement death is often a community experience, survivors may have to face publicity in the immediate aftermath, which may affect how they are able to grieve. I was overwhelmed with attention following my husband’s death. I felt like an ambassador—required to uphold a certain image and attend public events. I was expected to be gracious and pleasant when, at times, I just wanted to be left alone. But one of the positive aspects of the whirlwind of activity was that it distracted me from reality. I felt like I was living in somebody else’s life and sometimes I dreaded the thought of going back to mine and having to face the future. In these early months, it wasn’t too difficult to be fairly pleasant and agreeable, and I think others thought I was managing just fine. However, in actuality, I think I was just too busy and too numb to feel much of the pain.
As the activities slowed to an end and the cards and visits from others ceased, it became impossible to fight the knowledge that my husband was not going to be coming back. With the shock of his death now wearing off, I began to feel like I wasn’t able to cope at all. I was in physical discomfort, feeling as if my chest was chronically constricted and my stomach sick. I was emotionally distraught, feeling that I desperately needed to find my husband to make sure he was okay. It was difficult to hide all of the pain I was feeling because it completely encompassed me. I was easily offended by others’ comments and actions. I think this period in the aftermath of surviving tragedy can be an incredibly difficult time when it is easy to grow tired and irritable.
It is also helpful to realize that it’s not uncommon to feel abandoned or betrayed by others, including the department. This is a common theme among the survivors I’ve come to know over the years. I also grew to feel that my department had abandoned me after a series of “mistakes” had been committed, including losing treasured keepsakes of my husband’s and neglecting to issue police medals. Although I had been treated exceedingly well in the immediate aftermath of my husband’s death, it was not too long after that I was ignored, hung up on and received a lot of sour attitude. I spent six months in counseling just trying to make sense of how betrayed I felt by the once-beloved members of the police bureau. Embittered, I ended all contact with them.

What I have grown to understand after almost nine years, and what I believe is one of the most important messages I can share, is that surviving a line-of-duty death is a long, complicated process. Recognition of that has helped me to maintain realistic expectations of myself and others. It has made me more patient with myself and others than I’ve ever been before.

With myself, I’ve stopped checking periodically to see whether or not I’ve “survived.” Rather, I’ve resigned myself to the idea that surviving is an ongoing process that I will be undergoing for the rest of my life. I find I’m still changing and learning and I’m accepting of that. With others, I’ve been able to see how they have had their own imperatives and coping processes that were different from mine. And I’ve recognized that the conflicts between us have resulted from these differences, not from any inherent unkindness or insensitivity. With this understanding, I have been able to let go of the anger I felt toward my department—anger that held me captive for over six years. As well, this understanding has vastly improved relations with my own family after it had been torn apart by the tragedy of my husband’s death.

It has been a slow evolution, from that night nearly nine summers ago until today, but from it has come a very welcome sense of peace—a peace I wish for all survivors.

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