Psych Services: Let’s make a crucial point: Police grief is Different

Lisa Garmezy

Grief follows death, so coping with loss logically follows my last column on catastrophic illness. Mostly, though, it’s not logic but the deaths of Sgt. Ron Helus and Officer Samuel Jimenez in mass shootings that prompted me to write this.


Sgt. Helus told his wife he loved her and got off the phone to take a call . . . and it could happen in any department, at any time.


All officers grieve when a cop is murdered. As a Canadian officer wrote on the Police One website, “We band together, standing shoulder to shoulder, watching each other’s backs while we face evil most people never see.” Those strong bonds both intensify the loss and make it survivable at the same time: you know you are not mourning alone.


Strength through Support


Dr. Bella Schanzer of the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic says that a sense of community is key to anyone healing from a loss. In a recent talk, she said that the story of Job, whose friends came to console him, teaches us to gather around the grieving. Community is always present for officers, although some withdraw from it.


We try to create a sense of community when we reach out to the bereaved outside of law enforcement. That’s why the best things to say to someone who has lost a loved one emphasize the support of others. Try, “I’ll be here for you.”


Advice on this topic always notes that what you say is less important than simply being there. Silence is fine. “I don’t know what to say,” is fine. (The bereaved person doesn’t know either.) Share memories about the deceased, but not about other deaths. Offer what counselors call your “compassionate presence.”


In a sense, grieving people don’t feel they are part of the everyday world, and it becomes our job to gently pull them back. Psychology Today blogger Tara Shafer wrote in 2016, as she mourned a child, that there is “a rift between those who don’t understand what it means to hold a warm dead baby and those who do.”  She’s right and wrong at the same time. Others understand searing emotional pain, even if they acquire it differently. Her post seems to be part of a search for community.


Community develops around faith, of course. Religious traditions embrace rituals that bring us together and tell us what to do during the uncertainty after death—a divine instruction guide, if you will. In Pittsburgh, Jewish volunteers came to the Tree of Life synagogue to clean blood from the walls with baby wipes, so that all organic material could be buried with the bodies.


A Second Key


Many of you would find it obvious that people who see death as part of a divine plan seem to heal more readily than others. The blow is buffered by the knowledge that it’s not random, but that, “Everything happens for a reason.” Those who hold this belief benefit from Schanzer’s second key to adjusting: finding meaning in the death. She cautioned her audience that even in the same church, not everyone will share this belief: traumatic unanticipated losses are known for causing spiritual crises.


We can agree that the willingness of officers to protect and serve in order that all of us can live in an orderly society with greater safety and security brings meaning to the deaths of emergency responders. From the moment you are sworn in, the risks you take are taken with a sense of having a mission or greater purpose.


Other people find meaning differently. Some, like the Parkland student activists or the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, begin to serve a cause or give to others after an experience with death.


Oprah Winfrey, after a rape, gave birth at the age of 14 to a premature baby who did not survive. Years later, she named her son Canaan. Oprah chose it because, “Canaan means new land, new life.” By crediting her experiences with inspiring her to live a different life, she found meaning in her ordeal.




The third challenge for mourners, Dr. Schanzer said, is accepting a shift in one’s identity. A major task of dealing with death is figuring out who you are if you are no longer a parent, or a daughter, or a husband. People feel like the ground is shaking under their feet when their identity is fundamentally altered. Many come to realize that they are less different than they first thought. The parent who loses a child, for example, often still views the world through a mother’s eyes, although this may not be the case for Ms. Shafer.


To wander off-topic, officers seen at Psychological Services who are relieved of duty and facing termination grapple with regrets. They often seem to feel betrayed by a heartless system in which self-serving leaders threw them to the wolves. They see the idea that brothers and sisters united to fight evil together in a noble calling as a bad joke.


These officers have lost meaning, community – because they feel shunned – and because their careers will end, a large chunk of their identity, all at once. The end of a career is close to a death for them, and they hold none of Schanzer’s keys to coping.


For officers not in that unfortunate situation, Dr. Schanzer has explained how officers manage to deal with constant tragedy. You have your community and you find meaning in the deaths. Your strong sense of identity is unchanged and contributes to healing. In fact, the sea of uniforms at police funerals emphasizes your identity as an officer and the bonds and respect that reach beyond your own agency.


Still, loss is hard. One more element might make it easier to bear. Perhaps, in time, the public will more truly value the sacrifices you and your families make every single day.