Tips for "keeping it together" after a bad call

If your tendency is to clam up after a rough day and to completely avoid work talk, consider changing your ways


The news is never lacking for some seriously horrendous incidents, from chilling incidents of child abuse to people killing their family members before killing themselves, to officers being assaulted and murdered. It goes on and on.

What’s the common denominator in all of these incidents? Cops are there dealing with them.

Although you can bet those officers are staying professional and doing what has to be done in the midst of a nightmare, there’s little doubt these incidents are taking an emotional toll. Here we explore emotional first aid tips you can use to help stabilize yourself and your family after you’ve dealt with a really bad call.

Keeping your spouse or significant other completely in the dark about what you’ve experienced could be a recipe for domestic disaster. (Photo/Pixabay)
Keeping your spouse or significant other completely in the dark about what you’ve experienced could be a recipe for domestic disaster. (Photo/Pixabay)

Have a plan to involve your spouse/significant other when things are bad

If you tend to clam up after a rough day and to completely avoid work talk, consider changing your ways, particularly if you’ve just dealt with a traumatic call.

Understandably, an officer who’s been subjected to an emotionally jarring incident would be hesitant to talk about it, but keeping your spouse or significant other completely in the dark about what you’ve experienced could be a recipe for domestic disaster.

This doesn’t mean you need to tell your spouse every painful detail. That may not be helpful and could be a serious shock to the system for an unprepared spouse. The point is to alert them about the fact that you’re dealing with a painful experience so they have at least some understanding of why your behavior might change a bit.

If your spouse senses that something is really bothering you, he or she may probe to be helpful. If they’re not getting insight into what’s going on in your life, they may become increasingly concerned – and even angry – and their probing will likely continue. This can result in frustration on both sides and could even end up with your spouse emotionally disconnecting from you, which will ultimately make things worse. Lack of communication can be extremely detrimental to a relationship.

Have a plan in place that can help you tip off your spouse without making things emotionally worse for yourself. This is similar to establishing an off-duty family survival plan where you establish a "code statement" that immediately lets your family know that trouble is brewing. Before this, you have all developed an appropriate plan of action and each of you knows what to do to deal with the situation.

An emotional survival plan is similar. You and your spouse develop a statement through which you can clue them into the fact you’ve been involved in a particularly trying incident and you need their support and understanding. Depending on your personality and your own needs when it comes to dealing with painful emotions, your family can take the action you’ve pre-determined is appropriate and helpful. If that is to give you space and avoid probing, that’s what they know to do. If it’s to sit quietly while you vent, that’s what they’ll do.

Officers should remain aware of their spouse’s needs as well. Your direct involvement in a particularly bad incident makes you the center of concern, but you can’t forget that watching a loved one navigate painful emotions can be extremely difficult. You need to make sure you get the space you need – if that’s what you need – but you’ve also got to realize that allowing yourself to remain isolated emotionally can be bad for your family and ultimately make things worse for you. Remain aware of the fine line between giving yourself time to gather your thoughts and sliding into a hole of isolation and silence.

Acknowledge the incident was horrific

Cops tend to believe they’re supposed to be emotional super-humans, tougher than other people. They buy into the misguided idea that seeing bad things is just part of the job and letting it "get to you" is a sign of weakness that leads to professional doom. 

The opposite is true. By virtue of their jobs, cops do see more bad things than most people. However, refusing to acknowledge that witnessing those things can be emotionally painful and believing that experiencing those emotions is a sign of weakness is what can ultimately jeopardize your ability to stay in this line of work for the long haul. Real strength comes in being honest and courageous enough to face painful emotions head-on and navigate through them.

If the incident was bad, say it was bad. Don’t minimize it and write it off as just being “part of the job” to avoid painful emotions.

Accept your lack of control

One of the scenarios most feared by cops is one in which they have no control and no ability to help the helpless, particularly children. Other times, cops are called to the scene after a terrible deed has been done and they have to face the painful fact that they weren’t there to help prevent the incident and that they’re powerless to resolve the aftermath. What’s done is done and they’ve got no control over that. For police officers, who are driven to confront, prevent and protect, that’s a nightmare.”

One of the most helpful steps you can take after an event like that is to accept the facts, without second-guessing or dreaming up unrealistic "what if’s" like, “What if I had driven to the call faster, what if I said something differently, what if I had taken action sooner…”

Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing anyone could have done about it. It’s important to accept that. If you had no control, admit it...and believe it. This will help free you from the burden of dealing with unwarranted guilt, which can make difficult times much worse.

Don’t avoid discussions about a bad incident and, if you have to, start them

You may find yourself thinking, “I just want this day to be over so I can act like it never happened,” or “The sooner I forget about this nightmare, the better.” All understandable thoughts, particularly after a bad incident, but following through on them is not advisable.

Humans – particularly officers – have a natural tendency to bury thoughts, emotions and images deep in their minds if they’re painful or if they make them feel vulnerable. 

Some people can compartmentalize their emotions, which means they hide them in a mental "box" and move about their day without any sign of distress. Those emotions may surface later in a different setting, like when they get home, but when they’re on the job it’s as though there’s nothing wrong at all. 

Often, a couple of particularly common scenarios play out after a bad event, neither of which prove helpful in the long run. Sometimes cops get together over a few beers, talk about how bad the incident was for a little while, realize that it’s becoming too painful to think about and switch the subject. “OK, that’s enough. Sonofabitch! What’s this f’ing world coming to? Let’s talk about something else. I’m done with this!”

Another scenario that can play through is for the cops involved to simply put their heads down, nod in silent acknowledgment of the nightmare they’ve been thrust into, then move on with some kind of silent pact that the incident won’t be brought up again unless it has to be.

Discussing a bad incident with fellow officers – others you trust – is crucial to keeping yourself mentally on course. It doesn’t have to be a touchy-feely hug session, by the way. If that helps you, that’s great…do it! But for some officers, that’s uncomfortable. The core issue is having the courage to share the truth about your emotional reactions to a bad event not only with others who can benefit from your candor – like fellow officers who witnessed what you did – but also yourself.

Give it time

Officers tend to focus on immediate action and resolution. Sometimes, their lives depend on it. However, it’s essential they realize emotional recovery after a bad call doesn’t always happen quickly. Sometimes traumatic emotions can linger. They can go away and unexpectedly resurface or they can stay forefront in your mind for some time.

The key is to give yourself the time you need to reconcile your response to the event. If it’s taking more time than you expected to move through the feelings, or if they go away and suddenly resurface, don’t let that throw you. As Calibre Press teaches in the Street Survival seminar, these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

What do you do to help yourself cope after a really bad call? Share in the comments below. 

This article, originally published 04/21/2009, has been updated.

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