How can a spouse help with the aftermath of a critical incident?
Your spouse was involved in a critical incident. How are you going to handle it?
First, have your law enforcement spouse determine if their academy or department has an education piece for spouses during the training program.
Sometimes, regardless of their compassion or concern, first responder spouses don’t know or fail to understand the complexities of emotional trauma after a critical incident or the consequences of handling it improperly.
After the days, weeks, months or years following a critical incident a law enforcement spouse may respond in the following manner:
- Ignoring the topic.
- Withdrawing into their own world or simply think of how it affected them.
- Making the incident about them.
Why these responses may not be the best:
- The officer may just need space but still want to know that you are there by your words and actions.
- The officer may wonder if you even care about what they have been through or that you are at least trying to understand.
- The officer needs to be taken cared for at this time and cannot do any self-care if you make it about yourself.
Keys to Survival
Communication and trust are keys to survival during and after a critical incident. If you don’t have it now, start working on it TODAY. During a crisis is not the best time to start “working on your marriage.”
Trust needs to be developed and maintained to successfully navigate a major critical incident in your lives.
What does your first responder need to hear from you?
- I’m glad you’re ok . . .
- I know you did the best you could.
- What can I do for you?
- What or how are you feeling?
- How can I help?
Utilize active listening skills:
- Eye contact.
- Limit distractions.
- Monitor your body language and facial expressions.
- Show that you are listening.
- Provide feedback.
There are numerous books regarding surviving a critical incident that both you and your spouse can read. It helps if you work on this together.
Don’t try to “fix” your spouse but facilitate healing for both of you. A critical incident affects the entire family. The time to fix things are well before something like this happens.
We often tell other first responders if you don’t know what to say then don’t joke about it. Instead, let them know you’re glad they are okay. Is that enough to say when it’s your spouse? You know your spouse best. Perhaps you can utilize their love language to guide your response.
What are the 5 Love Languages?
Gary Chapman’s book, Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts outlines five ways to express and experience love. Chapman refers to each one as a love language, and says that everyone has at least one.
Receiving Gifts – It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive, just a small gift to let them know you are thinking of them.
Quality Time – Plan a date night, morning or lunch, depending on which shift the officer works.
Words of Affirmation – Since Officers are used to spouting orders or instructions, this one may be tough, but reassure your spouse that everything is going to be okay. Compliment and encourage them.
Acts of Service (devotion) – Take out the trash, do the dishes, bring your spouse a cup of coffee without being asked. You’d be amazed at how much these things mean.
Physical Touch – Holding hands, stroking hair, a gentle touch; all while not expecting anything in return.
Spouses who are also first responders should be cognizant that it’s not the time to utilize the move-on-to-the-next-call mentality. You don’t want to give your spouse the impression that their experience was insignificant. It’s important that you monitor the changes that are taking place or lack thereof.
Also, for the law enforcement spouse, don’t try to debrief your loved one’s incident as if it were another officer. This is your husband or wife that you’re dealing with. If they ask, be tactfully honest making allowance that you were not there in the moment.
While this sounds like a lot of work, it is something that you can incorporate in your everyday life so when the big things happen you are prepared. “In times of crisis, you revert back to your training.” This applies to a marriage as well as the career of a first responder. The reward far outweighs the risk when it comes to the well being of your family.
Una Stamus & Celebrate Life!
Cathy & Javier Bustos are law enforcement officers in Central Texas. As “That Peer Support Couple” they are strong peer support advocates speaking about surviving critical incidents and marriage. They can be reached by email: [email protected]