Dead in the Line of Duty: What Comes Next for the Families?

Apr 19, 2019

National Police Week begins May 6, 2019. Thousands of law enforcement officers and families from around the world will converge on Washington, DC to honor those who have died in the line of duty and to care for their survivors. I’ve never been to Police Week, even after three decades as a police psychologist. It doesn’t really matter, because when May rolls around, no matter where I am, I remember sitting on the living room floor with a grieving mother who wanted to believe that her son wasn’t dead, he was on a secret, deep undercover assignment. I remember the Christmas tree, the presents piled underneath, and the sound of the local school band who showed up to serenade a grieving widow and her children. I remember the shattered faces of the surviving officers as they waited to be interviewed after the accidental death of a colleague. And the many dazed and grieving families, dwarfed by the pageantry of a police funeral, being guided by the gentle touch of others as though they were blind as well as brokenhearted. And the houses filled with friends, relatives, and cops. The food, the flowers, and the mash-up of sobs and laughter.

I recall how, after a line-of-duty death, bureaucracies are pressed to respond humanely. Some do, some don’t. Mistakes are made, injuries sustained, and long-lasting emotional scars accumulated. Guilt hangs in the air.

Money is often a worry for families. The time it takes to unsnarl the red tape and start collecting benefits can feel like forever. Occasionally, griefunleashes a family fight. I recall the children who needed help dealing with their devastating losses. And the parents who had trouble explaining a loss they didn’t yet understand or accept.

Grief is a paradox; a struggle to cope with the flood of memories that alternate with the flood of fears about forgetting the sound of a loved one’s voice or the feel of a loved one’s touch.

I remember watching survivors struggle to accept the meaning of “no more, never again,” as messages of solace and compassion appeared from everywhere. Calling cards from the men and women, husband and wives, mothers and fathers, siblings and children who have lost loved ones in the line of duty. How volunteers from COPS (Concerns of Police Survivors) swung into action, offering support to co-workers and family, living proof that people survive their losses.

Then there are the memorials, like those scheduled for this coming May and the events that follow: seminars for the bereaved and summer camps for kids, therapists visits, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays, family get-togethers with an empty seat at the table, decisions to make, headlines to read, interviews to give or avoid, annual ceremonies honoring the death, billboards along the highway, maybe even a trial to endure. What should be a private loss becomes a public event to be shared with friends and strangers.

I am still in touch with some of these families. As though being present during the worst time of their lives links us together. With help and time, the people I know have all survived their losses, as have countless other police families who represent the best of a professional community that can be as fickle as it is loving and protecting.

The dead officers’ co-workers are still doing the jobs they were hired to do, even as they are understandably more cautious and may have harder, sadder hearts. Eager young men and women are still lining up to pursue careers in law enforcement. They are still marching through the doors of police academies, pants pressed, boots shined, eyes forward and hearts open.


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