National Police Week: Helping families of officers killed in the line of duty
Editor’s Note: As we focus this week on the officers who lost their lives in the line of duty, we also focus on the families they leave behind. These men, women and children offered a profound and painful sacrifice as they loved and supported the officers who gave their all guarding the line between good and evil. Our debt to them is immeasurable.
The loss of an officer in the line of duty has a deeply painful impact on the department, the community and ultimately, the nation. But the most painful blow is dealt to the officer’s family, whose worst nightmares are suddenly realized. The lurking fear that the “goodbye” said before a shift might be the last has suddenly become an unimaginable reality.
It now falls to those left behind to serve and protect that family. Here are a few things you can do to help after a line of duty death.
Be present, particularly if you are close to the family. It’s extremely hard to know what to say to the spouse of an officer killed in the line of duty and because of that, it can be tempting to delay contact, or worse yet, to avoid it altogether, even though you know your presence would be comforting.
Don’t wait to reach out with the thought that time might buy you the right words to say. In many instances, very little needs to be said. What the family needs is your presence. They need to know you’re there, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Watch what you say
When an officer is killed in the line of duty, emotions understandably run extremely high. When you talk with the family, however, be careful not to let those emotions boil over. Firing off comments like, “Don’t worry, we’ll catch the son of a bitch who killed your husband and we’ll make sure he fries,” is more likely to be painful than helpful to the surviving family.
Venting is fine and necessary, but don’t let off steam in front of the family thinking that by revealing your anger and frustration you will help decrease theirs. You likely won’t.
Remember that in a law enforcement family, the “Law Enforcement Family” is crucial
After an officer has died, make sure that the surviving family is still invited to departmental gatherings and events year after year. Surviving spouses have commented that in some instances, not only did they lose their spouse, but they lost their “law enforcement family” as well. Make sure a surviving family isn’t inadvertently cut off from the support and friendship they had with all of you prior to the officer’s death.
Many want to be helpful to a surviving spouse and family but often the first step – offering the help – ends up being the last. There’s a good chance you’re not going to get a call from a grieving spouse asking you to come over and mow the lawn or check the air in the car tires.
The best way to be helpful with the burden of the daily routine is to figure out what needs to be done (which won’t be hard... just think of your own to-do list) and be proactive in getting it done. If you know the officer who was killed always took care of mowing the lawn, go mow the lawn. The oil in the car will need to be changed. You could keep an eye on that and get it done. The sidewalk will need to be shoveled. Show up with a shovel in hand.
Consider what you usually take care of and what you would want done for your spouse if you weren’t here, then do it yourself or make sure someone else is getting it done. And stick with the job.
Don’t make shallow promises or statements
Seeing the suffering of the family of an officer killed in the line of duty can make you desperate to help ease the pain. With that, be careful not to make idle promises in an effort to make the family feel better... especially to kids. If you tell a child you’re going to take him somewhere every weekend as a way of giving him something to smile about and look forward to, he’ll believe you. "I'd prefer the guys not promise to take him fishing," said one spouse whose child was told he'd be picked up by one of his father's co-workers one weekend. "Last Saturday he stood by the door all day long. Nobody ever showed up to keep their promise."
Along the same lines, if you tell a grieving spouse, “Don’t worry about money. The department will take care of anything,” you better be right.
If you don’t absolutely know something to be true or if you can’t follow through on a promise you’re about to make, better to say nothing.
If the family has questions, answer them... if you can
Sometimes in an effort to “protect” a surviving spouse, details of an officer’s death are kept silent. This, however, is often counterproductive.
If the family has questions and you’re in a position to answer them, do so candidly and to the best of your ability. Be sure you've gathered as much information as possible as quickly as possible so you can give answers in as much detail as possible. Don't be afraid to give them the details of the death... they need to know. In most cases, the details will be far less shocking than what they will imagine happened if left in the dark.
If you don't know the answer to a question, admit it. If you tell the spouse her husband was shot once and it turns out he was shot six times, the paranoia that sometimes accompanies the grief that LE spouses suffer will be intensified once they find out the true details ("He told me John was shot only once. What else is the department hiding?")
Never tell them, "You don't need to know that," or "You don't want to hear any more about this." If you are uncomfortable sharing the details with the family, have someone else do it. Don't let your lack of comfort jeopardize the family's right to know how they lost their loved one.
Some departments have to keep the family in the dark about the details of the incident, for legal reasons. If this is the case, the department should sit down with the family and compassionately explain their reasons for not sharing information.
Stay in contact
Many officers say they hesitate to do this because they're afraid they'll resurrect bad memories. Not true. The family may cry when they see you or hear from you, but they're probably not crying because they're sad. They're crying because you cared enough about their officer and his family to contact them.
Make monthly phone calls to the family for the first year just to see how they're doing. These can dwindle off into quarterly calls after that, but make sure the cycle of contact doesn’t go from extremely heavy immediately following the death and maybe for the next month after that, then drop off to nothing as others get back to their own lives and essentially disappear.
Also, remember the date of the officer's death with a card or phone call to the family to let them know you, too, are thinking about it. Don't avoid this because you’re worried you are bringing the anniversary to the family's mind... they're already thinking about it. Along those lines, be especially aware of the holidays, which are commonly the most traumatic times for surviving families.
For more information on the emotional aftermath of line of duty deaths and ways you can help, check out the Concerns of Police Survivors Website at www.nationalcops.org. This excellent organization should be utilized and supported by all involved with law enforcement.