(The following article by Barbara A. Schwartz originally appeared on PoliceOne.com, the online resource for Law Enforcement, and is reprinted by permission of the PoliceOne editorial team and the author. Visit PoliceOne to access articles, information, and resources that help officers across the United States protect their communities and stay safe on the streets.)
Most parents dread having the sex talk with their children. For law enforcement parents, the dreaded conversation comes when an officer is killed in the line of duty and their child asks, “Daddy (or Mommy), do bad guys want to kill you?”
Before he died in 2008, Houston Officer Gary Gryder had that conversation with his 13-year-old son, Austin.
“Dad told me he was working a dangerous extra job and if anything happened to him I would be taken care of and I shouldn’t be sad. After we had that talk, I ended every conversation, on the phone or in person, by telling him I loved him,” Austin recalled.
Don’t let apprehension about scaring your child, or making your kids anxious about you going to work, keep you from having “the talk.”
Conversations Make a Difference
The talk made a difference in how Austin dealt with his father’s death. Austin knew to honor his father by living life and not with sadness and tears.
Austin’s father lost his life when a car struck him at a freeway construction site in the predawn hours. Another officer suffered a broken leg and survived. That evening, Austin pitched a winning baseball game with the diamond surrounded by blue uniforms. Austin knew his dad was watching and would have wanted him to pitch that night.
Looking back with the hindsight of an adult, Austin, who plans to attend an academy after he finishes his degree, believes officers should not only describe the dangers of the job to their children, but also describe the kind of people an officer has to deal with. “Talk about the crazy and the boring stuff. How things can change in a split-second. That one day can be easy and on another [day] officers can fear for their life or be killed.”
Don’t let apprehension about scaring your child, or making your kids anxious about you going to work, keep you from having “the talk” that Gary had with Austin.
Experts Offer Advice
Your kids spend time online. You can’t shield them from the risks inherent in the job, the anti-police rhetoric prevalent today, or the fact that cops have to resort to deadly force.
“Get in front of it as a parent,” Dr. Buser, Houston Fire Department chief psychologist, said. He urged officers – just as he has firefighters – to have the talk with their kids. “Tell your children about the risks you face going to work. Start with what’s relevant, let the child ask questions, and be prepared for those questions.”
Houston Police Chaplain Monty Montgomery spent years on patrol. He explains to younger children that people do bad things, get in trouble, and don’t want to be punished. People don’t like the police because officers have the power to put them in jail. Criminals shoot cops because they are scared to go to jail or because they are sick – mentally ill – and don’t think rationally.
Chaplain Montgomery shows his kids his handcuffs and tells them that people don’t like it when he has to put the cuffs on and take away people’s freedom. He explains that people get mad and fight or harm the cop to stay free.
To help younger children understand evil, criminals, and why people hurt other people, Dr. Buser recommends reading a fairy tale or other stories with your children and discussing the role of the ogre or villain. To discuss death and grieving with children, you can also read the books “I Miss You — A First Look at Death” by Pat Thomas and “Death” by Janine Amos or watch the movie “Bambi.” For tweens or teens, a TV show or movie can serve the same purpose.
If asked about deadly force, tell your children that no officer goes to work wanting to harm someone. Share stories with your children about all the times you have helped or saved people. Explain that deadly force is used only to save yourself or others.
When an officer your child knows is killed in the line of duty, tell your child exactly what happened using direct language like “died,” “dead,” “killed,” “shot,” “hit by a car.” Avoid euphemisms like “passed away” or “she went to sleep and won’t wake up.”
Explain death as when the body stops working — the person stopped breathing and the heart stopped beating.
Otherwise, you are leaving what happened up to the child’s imagination. You want the child to hear what happened from you and not from the internet, television, or from a playmate.
Chaplain Montgomery gives children control over what he tells them about an LODD. “I ask what the child would like to know about what happened.”
If the child asks a difficult question, Dr. Jana Tran, also a Houston Fire Department psychologist, suggests you turn the question back to the child. “Ask the child what they think happened. Then you can correct their thinking.”
Setting an Adult Example
Children learn how to grieve by observing adults. If you hide your grief, so will the youngster. Children may avoid talking about the deceased because they fear making others sad. Share your feelings with your children and encourage them to do the same. Assure the child that feeling angry, sad, or crying is okay, that hating God is okay, that talking to the deceased is normal and healthy.
Family therapist Carol Milam (MS, LPC, NCC) tells parents that they may have to help the child put words to their feelings or make drawings about how they feel. She suggests parents ask children how they feel about the loss and about what happened to the fallen officer.
Children ages three to seven years are prone to “magical thinking” where they concoct that they somehow caused the death.
“You have to check for distortions in the child’s beliefs,” Dr. Tran said. “Children are born with a just world belief and the sudden death doesn’t fit into their existing belief system.”
Dr. Tran encourages parents to monitor their child’s play. Play demonstrates how the child is feeling and processing the loss.
Children may also regress into old habits like sucking a thumb or clutching an old blanket or a stuffed toy. Just like you, the child is seeking safety and comfort.
“If children act out or behave badly, ask if they are thinking about the deceased person right now and try to relate the behaviors to their feelings,” Dr. Tran said. “Help the child put words to feelings.”
Consider the future when deciding whether to take a child to the funeral. When they are older, will they resent not attending? Will they feel left out of the grieving process?
If a child does not attend the funeral, create an activity or ceremony to honor the deceased and to express grief. Have the child write a letter to leave at the grave or post a reflection on the Officer Down Memorial Page.
“Nothing was more comforting than that talk with my father before he died,” Austin said.
The talk gave him a sense of safety and the knowledge that his father would always be with him.
Take Austin’s advice — have that talk with your children.
About the Author
Barbara A. Schwartz is certified as a first responder peer supporter by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Pear Support (LEAPS).
She is a former reserve officer serving in patrol and investigations. She has been a contributing feature writer for American Police Beat for sixteen years. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, The Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, The Shield, and The Police News.
She maintains memberships in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), Texas Tactical Police Officers Association (TTPOA), and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).
Retired after 30 years with NASA in Houston, Schwartz worked in Mission Control and Astronaut Training. Schwartz earned a degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University with electives in Criminal Justice and Criminology. She helped fund her education by working for the campus police department.
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