For generations law enforcement officers were told to “buck up and move on.” That was the way they dealt with the trauma and cumulative stress of the profession. Over time, officers become numb to the human cruelty they come across every day. They go from call to call and simply try to forget what they just saw, smelled and heard. Every day, they dress out and begin their shift not knowing what they will face — whether they will end their day by going home to their family or going to the morgue. As the years pass, the stress starts to impact them significantly at home and on the job while they continue to buck up and move on.
Our wish is for law enforcement suicides never to happen, but the reality is that they do. Until they stop, there will be countless families, co-workers and agencies left behind, reeling over their loss. Agencies are trying to navigate the funeral, the investigation, their officers who are suffering from the loss of their friend, partner and co-worker, all while wanting to do what is right by the family without sensationalizing the way the officer died. Agencies vary in their response to law enforcement suicide. Some do nothing and some do everything. How an agency addresses suicide will forever leave an impact on families, co-workers and the community.
An officer recently said, “I’m proud of my agency and how they respond to line-of-duty deaths, police suicide, off-duty deaths and retired officers who have died. They aren’t all done the same, but the honor is there. It’s not how they died, it’s how they lived.” They are right. We should be talking about how the officer lived and not just about how they died. The more we talk about it, the more awareness there is. The more awareness, the less it happens. Right? In 2019, Blue HELP reported that 228 officers died by suicide while Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP) reported that 147 officers died in the line of duty. A new study shows that police are at the highest risk of suicide of any profession. Our law enforcement officers are suffering.
How an agency addresses suicide will forever leave an impact on families, co-workers and the community.
The funeral is over. The family has left. The co-workers have returned to work. Families are left to pick up the pieces and try to figure out what their new normal looks like. They are left with so many unanswered questions, many of which will never be answered. They are left with feelings of guilt because they think they should have seen the signs or knew what was about to happen. They are angry, sad, hurt, lonely and utterly devastated. Some families will stay united and some won’t. Others will isolate themselves simply because they do not want to answer the questions or talk about suicide. Our co-workers are left to endure the same grief and roller coaster of emotions while continuing to serve and protect 24/7, adding to the cumulative stress. As a survivor, you may get the feeling that others are telling you to buck up and move on. Get back to life. Move on.
Survivors do not want to buck up and move on. They want to talk about how their officer lived and should be remembered, not how they died. They want their officer identified with the sacrifices they made because of their commitment to their communities and their profession. They want them remembered as brave men and women who sacrificed it all. They need organizations like Survivors of Blue Suicide Foundation to unite them to other survivors and honor the fallen.
Kim Goldberg, surviving spouse of Michael Goldberg, EOW July 19, 2007, advised that one of the struggles she is having is helping her children remember that their father was a good police officer in spite of the negative press aimed at law enforcement today. Staying connected with the blue family allows the children to see police officers in a positive light rather than just hearing about them in the news.
As a co-worker, friend or loved one, reach out to the family. As a family member, reach out to the co-workers. Grief is not a journey meant to be taken alone. Lean on each other for support. Talk about your officer with the family and other co-workers. Look at pictures. Laugh at the stories. Remember the good times. Honor their life.
Remember that the family is larger than the spouse, kids and parents. If the officer had siblings, reach out to them. Grief is not reserved for just the spouse, kids and parents. Grief is for everyone touched by the officer’s life: grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. The families have just lost their officer. They don’t want to lose their blue family too. Document and remember the special dates, kids’ birthdays, graduation days, communion, anniversaries. It can be a visit, a phone call, a text, a letter; just remember. Be there for each other. Remember, the grief journey is a lifelong experience after losing a loved one.
Reach out and ask for help. Your decision doesn’t affect just you, it affects your families, co-workers, agencies and community. With the resources available today for law enforcement officers struggling or in crisis, the awareness being spread and the organizations out there to help, there is no need to buck up and move on.
Shelley Jones is the executive director and co-founder of Survivors of Blue Suicide Foundation, Inc. (SBS), survivorsofbluesuicide.org.