Editor’s note: This article, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of the FOP Journal, the official publication of the National Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
The past couple of years have been among the toughest times for law enforcement in our country. To date, our profession has lost hundreds of officers to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us have experienced the loss of family members and other loved ones to the pandemic as well. Facing an unprecedented rise in violent attacks on law enforcement, we have also borne the grief of losing co-workers killed in the line of duty by violent assaults. And of course, we must never forget our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who suffered silently and died by their own hands. Each and every life lost brings about feelings of grief and loss, yet we rarely discuss our grief. The FOP Division of Wellness Services recognizes the toll this takes on us, and we would like to share resources and information for coping.
Grief is a natural reaction to loss, but for some it can become overwhelming, causing struggles with daily life. It is both a universal and personal experience and can look different for everyone. While we cannot control the process of grief, we can become informed about and prepare for the various stages of the experience. Consider these tips for working through grief.
Remember to give yourself time. Mourning can last for months or years. Generally, pain is tempered as time passes and we adapt to life without loved ones. We may try to place limits on grief, believing that after a certain amount of time we should be “over it.” However, not allowing time to experience grief through all its stages may actually cause more harm in the long term. We should never attempt to limit our own or another’s experience of grief, but should instead seek to allow grace to ourselves and provide support to others going through the process.
Your experience of grief is likely to be different from others’. For some people, grief is a short-term phenomenon, also known as acute grief, although the pain may return unexpectedly at a later time. But other individuals may experience prolonged grief, also known as complicated grief, lasting months or years. Some people may show more pronounced expressions of grief, with outward displays of emotion. Others may experience grief more quietly, becoming withdrawn and seemingly depressed. The misperception that “more” grief is better or that there is a proper way to grieve can make the process more difficult.
Learn and recognize the stages of grief. The Five Stages of Grief is a theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It suggests that we go through five distinct stages after the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
- Denial: It can be hard to believe we have lost an important person in our lives, especially when we may have just spoken with them the previous week or even the previous day. During this stage, our reality has shifted completely, and it can take time to adjust. Denial serves the purpose of helping us feel less overwhelmed by the loss while we absorb and comprehend what has happened.
- Anger: At a time when we are processing so much in our loss, anger can feel like an acceptable emotional outlet. For many, it may feel more socially acceptable to admit that we are angry than to say that we are scared. Expressing anger allows us to express emotion without fear of judgment. Anger also tends to be the first thing we feel when starting to release emotions related to loss.
- Bargaining: When coping with loss, it isn’t unusual to feel so desperate that we are willing to do anything to alleviate or minimize the pain. During this stage in grieving, we may try to bargain to change the situation. This may look like directing our requests to a higher power or something bigger than us that may be able to influence a different outcome. There is an acute awareness of our humanness in this stage of grieving, when we realize that there is nothing we can do to influence change or create a better end result. Bargaining comes from a feeling of helplessness and gives us a perceived sense of control over something that feels so out of control.
- Depression: At this stage, we start to feel the loss of our loved one more abundantly. Our panic begins to subside, the emotional fog begins to clear, and the loss feels more present and unavoidable. During our experience of processing grief, there comes a time when we slowly start to look at the reality of our present situation. Bargaining no longer feels like an option and we are faced with what is happening. In those moments, we tend to pull inward as the sadness grows. We might find ourselves retreating, being less sociable and reaching out less to others about what we are going through.
- Acceptance: Acceptance comes when we begin to be able to move forward from the loss. When we come to a place of acceptance, it is not that we no longer feel the pain of loss. Instead, we are no longer resisting the reality of our situation, and we are not struggling to make it something different. Sadness and regret can still be present in this phase. But the emotional survival tactics of denial, bargaining and anger are less likely to be present during this phase of the grieving process.
Remember: Grief is not limited to the loss of people, but when it follows the loss of a loved one, it may be compounded by feelings of guilt and confusion, especially if the relationship was a difficult one. Many people expect to experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, in that order, due to the continuing influence of On Death and Dying, the 1969 book by Kübler-Ross. However, it has been demonstrated that many, if not most, people will not progress through these stages. While some people do experience the stages, and eventually reach acceptance after a loss, grief is now understood to be highly individualized and unpredictable.
Understand that grief is born out of love. As we work through the process of grief, it may help to remember that grief occurs because we have experienced great love. Focusing on happy and memorable moments shared with loved ones lost has the power to shift our experiences of grief to an appreciation of that love. When working through the negative emotions that come with grief and loss, making a concerted effort to temper those with positive recollections of love and fondness for the person can allow some light to shine in.
Be prepared for grief to ebb and flow. The course of grief is unpredictable. During an anniversary, you might experience the intense emotions and reactions that you first experienced when you lost your loved one. Even years after a loss, you might continue to feel sadness when you’re confronted with reminders of their death. As you continue healing, take steps to cope with reminders of your loss. Some of the following examples have worked for others: Consider planning a distraction. Schedule a gathering or a visit with friends or family during times when you’re likely to feel alone or be reminded of your loved one. Remember to focus on the good things about your relationship with your loved one and the time you had together, rather than the loss. Write a letter to them or a note about some of your good memories. Start a new tradition. Make a donation to a charitable organization in your loved one’s name on birthdays or holidays, or plant a tree in their honor. Finally, connect with others. Draw friends and family close to you, including people who were special to your loved one.
Engage with sources of support. Find someone who will encourage you to talk about your loss. Stay connected to your usual support systems, such as spiritual leaders and social groups. If you are uncertain about whether your grieving process is normal, consider consulting a professional counselor. Outside help is sometimes beneficial to people trying to recover and adjust, and is a perfectly normal resource when coping with a lifechanging loss. As always, the Division of Wellness Services is here to support you as well, and can provide further information and resources to guide you on your path back to wellness.