Cops see grief as a matter of routine, but it usually belongs to the citizens we serve. Sadly, we experience it within the greater law enforcement community as the tributes mount as well.
When grief of the highest order is experienced on a personal level, the coping mechanisms chosen will define our course for the future as a new normal sets in. I, along with a thousand others, appreciate the heartfelt expressions by LET writer Trish Buchanan following the suicide of her husband, East Hartford, CT Police Officer Paul S. Buchanan. Trish’s expressiveness has no doubt helped many others, as her new normal has become an instructive voice from the depths of her personal sadness.
We all need to make decisions about how to cope with personal tragedy. Optimally, the decisions are made beforehand Realistically; they are tested by fire in the crucible of the moment, or made in reaction to the catastrophe before us.
For thirty years I was on the investigative side of the yellow tape. On May 27, 2014, I found myself on the personal side. Friends I had known for 35 years, and relatives by marriage, were murdered in their home in Mission Viejo, California, along with their daughter, 15. If that news were not bad enough, the murder suspect was identified as their son, 21,who then committed suicide. They died by a shotgun blast to the head.
As you can imagine, it was a bloody crime scene. But I did not see it as a detective or police commander; I saw it as a civilian. It was a few days after the biohazard; clean-up team had sanitized the home. Gone was the blood soaked carpet and drywall. Part of the second story sub-floor in the hallway had to be cut and removed because of saturation from body fluids. The plywood covering the hole reminded me that someone had died where I stood—a person I knew.
Regardless of the sanitation process, this beautiful home was now stained with remnants of death times 4! It was indeed sobering to walk through the house with my brother and sister-in-law, who now, along with their family, had to work at picking up the pieces in a now-shattered world.
I experienced my parent’s deaths. While sad, it is expected at the end of a long life. I experienced the accidental drowning of a nephew, 3. While tragic, it was an accident. This event that shocked me so much was an intentional act that prematurely ended the life of 4 people. “Speechless,” “Sick to my stomach,” “Astonished,” “Disbelief!” Those were my expressions when news arrived, as I nearly felt incapacitated.
While there is no way to specifically prepare for grief of this kind, many years ago, I vowed that four elements would have priority in my life—to maintain a sense of stability and cope with the best and worst life has to offer:
· Faith (as a hope for the future)
· Family (to love and be loved)
· Friends (to gain wisdom and sound advice)
· Fitness (because of the physiological nexus to emotional health)
This is a simple list, but maintaining each has required a renewed commitment. If these elements were absent on May 27, the news would have crippled me. But with their presence, I will make it through—an ongoing process.
Conversely, I have seen three factors destroy friends and loved ones when deployed as a remedy to tragic circumstances:
· Denial (as if nothing occurred)
· Drugs (to self-medicate)
· Drinking (to bury the hurt inside)
This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of destructive behaviors, but these are biggies found frequently in the law enforcement community. They are the aftershock from an earlier tremor that will slowly eradicate stabilizing forces. If you find yourself in the rut of denial, drugs, or drinking, I implore you to reach out for help.
The purpose of writing this article is to espouse the significance of faith, family, friends, and fitness as coping mechanisms to devastating circumstances. Each has played a significant role in advocating emotional wellness in my life. If you care to read more about the elements that will carry me through this tragedy, may I commend the In Memoriam I have written for the Sheer family on my website in the blog area:
Jim is the author of The Spirit behind Badge 145. He worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-seven years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. During his career in law enforcement, he worked with, supervised, or managed every element of the organization. He holds a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations. Jim is married and has three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at[email protected] or view his website www.jimmcneff.com which is geared toward helping officers.