Widows of slain officers: 'You never get over it'
By Michelle Locke
Sabrina Williams is seen in the lobby of the Oakland police association Tuesday, April 1, 2009, in Oakland, Calif. Sabrina's husband, James Williams, was killed in 1999 in the line of duty for the Oakland police. (AP Photo)
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OAKLAND, Calif. — The haunting strains of "Amazing Grace" ended the public funeral last week for four Oakland policemen killed in the line of duty. But the many families who have heard that music played for their own fallen officers know that the ordeal for survivors was just beginning.
"I think about the pain and the grief that they're going through and what's coming to them in the days ahead," said Tammy Callahan-Monego, who lost her husband, a sheriff's deputy, 11 years ago. "I know it's going to be extremely difficult."
In the deadliest incident involving officers in California since 1970, police say a parolee killed Oakland officers Mark Dunakin and John Hege during a March 21 traffic stop, then killed their colleagues Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai in a shootout. The parolee was killed by police.
Contrary to common wisdom, officers' spouses have not steeled themselves to cope with sudden loss, said Suzie Sawyer, who founded the support group COPS (Concerns of Police Survivors) in 1984.
"Our real defense mechanism to allow our officer to go out and do that job is - `It's never going to be my cop that dies,'" Sawyer said.
After tributes fade away and memorials are etched, families of officers killed in the line of duty often are left with memories, grief, loneliness and sometimes financial strains. Mothers raise children on their own. Children struggle to understand why they suddenly are fatherless. School, church and social events remind them of the missing piece of their lives.
Word of the Oakland shootings made old wounds fresh for Sabrina Williams and her three children. She remembers being in denial the day in January 1999 when police officers were knocking on her front door.
After they told her that her husband, Oakland police officer James Williams, had been shot by a sniper, she remembers turning to stone, numb to everything except for the feel of her 4-year-old daughter's little hand grasping her leg.
A whirl of funeral arrangements and details followed. "It's so quick," Williams said. "It's not like an illness or a car accident. It's so public."
Then came the everyday grind of life as a single parent - always being the one to make the decisions, the one to say no, the one to answer questions about what happened.
All three children were deeply affected by the loss of their father, with one son suffering migraines while the other had seizures. Her daughter became terrified that her grandmother would die, too.
And then some of the people she used to know faded from her life.
"I don't know if they become uncomfortable around you, afraid of what they might say to you, but they distance themselves," Williams said.
COPS came about after Sawyer, whose husband was then an officer in Prince George's County, Md., saw awkwardness build up when several officers' wives were widowed.
"There was this hesitation to take them into our police wives group because they really weren't police wives any more," she said. "They'd come to our meetings and they'd start to cry. We didn't want to hear. We didn't want to know what their life was like."
Sawyer is now executive director of COPS, based in Camdenton, Mo., which has chapters in 48 states.
The group organizes picnics and other outings for the families of slain officers. It provides classes on dealing with trauma and practical matters, such as learning how to handle any guns in the house. And it puts survivors through physical challenges such as rope courses so they can prove to themselves literally and figuratively that they can stand on their own two feet.
Perhaps most important to survivors is knowing where to find a sympathetic ear, said Callahan-Monego, president of the Northern California chapter of COPS.
"When you feel like there's no one that you can talk to, because sometimes you've talked enough to your family, your friends, you need someone that's been in that situation who can understand," she said. Someone who can tell you "that the things you're thinking and feeling are absolutely normal."
Callahan-Monego's husband, John Paul Monego, an Alameda County deputy sheriff, was shot while responding to a robbery at a steakhouse in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin.
"I wanted to crawl in a hole," she said. But she had an 18-month-old son to take care of.
She went back to work as a California Highway Patrol officer and endured the lengthy trial of the three men accused in the shooting, all now in prison.
Many survivors are faced almost immediately with the prospect of a trial, sitting in a courtroom with the suspect accused of killing their loved one.
Michelle Gray had to deal with more than that. After a parolee shot and killed her husband, Merced police Officer Stephan Gray, her house was targeted - beer cans left on the lawn, a gang insignia spray-painted on her back fence.
"They made it very well known that they knew where we lived," said Gray, who eventually moved away.
COPS members plan to contact the bereaved in Oakland. There are a number of survivors and three of the officers- Dunakin, Sakai and Romans-left behind wives and children.
For now, the families most likely need some space, Williams said.
"It's down the road that you really need support," she said.