In the late summer of 2005, my worst fears as a police wife were realized when my husband of merely a month was struck and killed by a truck during a foot pursuit. I hadn’t even received our marriage license back from the state. What followed was most likely what any of you might imagine. A gut wrenching send off, his squad visibly trembling as they carried his flag-draped casket into the church. My children, eight and eleven, bewildered by the masses of people surrounding them, covering their ears at the reverberating sound of the bagpipers, both of them intently watching me for reassurance that I wasn’t going to suddenly disappear from their lives as Tim had.
Then, weeks and months of struggling to get out of bed every day. Faking normalcy for the sake of my children. Avoiding anything that reminded me of Tim. His side of our closet, the television shows he liked, parking in the driveway so I didn’t have to see his truck in the garage. My family and friends watched me struggle. They stepped in to help with the boys when they could. They brought meals, eventually helped me go through Tim’s belongings, walked beside me as I took the tiny steps towards healing the gigantic wound Tim’s death had left in my soul.
But when I took those first wobbly steps and opened my heart to another man, I was stunned at the response. “It’s too soon”, they said. “Tim’s not been gone a year”. “Why on earth would you ever become involved with another police officer?” my Mother pleaded with me. Rumors swirled, some of Tim’s co-workers seemed offended that I would date someone outside of “my” agency. I certainly never set out to become involved with another officer, in fact, it terrified me.
But Chris had been a friend of mine long before he chose his career path. We met in high school, and his familiarity comforted me, yet his separation from the event and the people involved; his unbiased perspective, was what I clung to. Chris didn’t see me as the “widow” as everyone else did. He didn’t know Tim, didn’t socialize with us, he had no connection to the people who were so deeply affected by Tim’s loss. I regarded him as this single stepping stone, the initial tentative distancing of myself away from this event that over the months, had completely saturated every fiber of my being, defining me, almost becoming a function of my own body. No waking thought, no movement, no decision was made without that loss pinging me somewhere in my brain.
Looking back, neither of us had any business becoming involved with one another. He grieved his irretrievably broken marriage, and the fallout from such. I continued to grieve my own devastating loss. Sometimes we were a comfort to one another, sometimes we resented that the other still carried around a wounded heart. My children suffered, his son suffered. I lost friends who simply couldn’t bear to see me love a man that wasn’t Tim. My family warmed to Chris, but I could feel their skepticism. Like everything in all of our lives, it was an evolution.
In October of 2008, a little over three years after the loss of Tim, Chris and I were married. We still struggled with the ghosts of our pasts. We had no understanding of the obstacles in front of us that would reveal themselves over the next several years. We faced a tenuous custody dispute, the disintegration of the relationship with the father of my children, that bled over into Chris’s career. Thousands in legal bills. A head on collision that almost killed my step-son. Multiple surgeries on my youngest son, born with a catastrophic birth defect. The defection of my children from our home to live with their father full time. My horrific and dangerously unhealthy response to that event.
When I lost Tim, I thought that had to be the worst challenge I would face, and that my quota had to have been filled. The truth is, the world had alternate plans for me. But the point I’ve trying to make is: I am still standing. WE are still standing. Together. And we are strong. Our human frailty, our weaknesses, our missteps and mistakes, have knit together this remarkable life, this remarkable marriage. One we both marvel at when we stop to consider all we’ve endured.
We both had moments where we considered walking away, starting over alone, or with someone not carrying around massive amounts of baggage and pain. But it was in that darkness, where we blindly searched for and found one another. It was in that pain cave that we started to build the foundation for the life we are both so deeply grateful for, the one that we live today.
In Tim’s death, in the devastating events that occurred after, I finally realized that there is no escaping the pain that our humanness allows. There is no “get out of pain free” card in this life. But, understanding that, and fortifying yourself, your family, your relationships to withstand those events is the key. I understand now, that the challenges we’ll face have not ended, that soon, another will arise. But in changing my perspective, in changing my response, in allowing someone to stand shoulder to shoulder with me while I fight, I have the strength and the courage I need to get through whatever it is I might face in the future.
If you are a police family, it is likely that you, too, will face obstacles that seem insurmountable. In the environment we live in, that our spouses work in, it is inevitable that your family will be exposed to soul crushing, inexplicably difficult situations that will have to be faced. There is a reason that the divorce and suicide rates in this field are so high. But that doesn’t mean it will happen to you. Shore yourselves up. Talk to each other, even when you don’t want to. Build relationships outside law enforcement that create a balance between work and home. Strengthen your faith, learn to recognize when you’re headed down a dangerous path; any dangerous path, alcohol, drugs, infidelity, rage, depression, disassociation. Ask for help. Allow the people you trust into your heart, and let them help you.
It’s taken decades for agencies to understand the toll this job takes on its workforce. However, it is being addressed more and more and the stigma of needing help is falling away. If you can’t do it for your own sake, do it for ours. Your family needs you whole, needs you healthy and needs you after. If you’re struggling, reach out. You will be amazed at how many hands will reach back.
Public Safety Peer Support Association
International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc.
410-313-2473 (Emergency Hotline) https://www.icisf.org
First Responder Support Network
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
800-950-6264 (NAMI Helpline) or
[email protected] http://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Family-Members- and-Caregivers
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
1-800-662-HELP (4357) https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov