by Peggy Sweeney
Author’s Note: Several years ago, a detective from a metropolitan police department sent me an email concerning the death of his 17-year-old daughter. She had been brutally murdered by her boyfriend and the anniversary of her death was fast approaching. Vince was struggling with several grief issues, one of which was his perception that as a police officer he was unable to protect her and save her life.
With his permission, I am sharing my response to his email in the hopes that it will help other bereaved dads, especially those of you in law enforcement and emergency response, who may be coping with some of the same issues.
Dear Vince, There are several things I would like to discuss with you. Please understand that what I’m going to say is not a criticism. I do not say these things to chastise you, but rather to help you understand some of your concerns, why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, and to help you cope with your grief.
We are dealing with several key issues. First, you are a man and therefore deal with feelings and emotions differently than a woman. Second, you are in law enforcement. This profession brings with it many issues that can, at times, compound your grief. For example, as a law enforcement officer, you have been trained not to show feelings and emotions. If you do express feelings (cry, have fits of anger, seem depressed, etc.), you may be perceived as weak or unable to handle your job. That is, your partners may worry that in a stressful or dangerous situation, you may fall apart and not be able to protect them. Trust is a very important quality to possess in law enforcement. You have been taught to take control of a situation—no matter how bad it is—and resolve it as best you can.
Furthermore, you are very hesitant to share your feelings, thoughts, and stories of the day with anyone, particularly your family and friends who are not on the police force. The code of silence among your peers is very strong. If you do talk about things, it is with other police officers in a safe setting, often during “choir practice”.
Please understand that I am not finding fault with you or your profession in any way nor am I criticizing you for how you deal with stress, grief, and so on. I am merely stating what I believe is fact. Now, take all that I have mentioned and try to deal with the death of your daughter. Not easy at all. Nevertheless, I want to say that you have several positive elements in all of this.
First, you are willing to reach out to someone for help who is not only a stranger, but a civilian.
Second, you openly discuss the events surrounding your daughter’s death with me.
Third, you acknowledge that the next few days are going to be terrible. Having to remember the anniversary of her death as well as the events surrounding the investigation, trial, and so on escalate the grief pain.
Fourth, you have no idea how lucky you are to have a Lieutenant who is so compassionate and understanding. She truly cares about your welfare. This is often not the case in many police departments. The commanding officers may say they care (and I think in their hearts they do), but they, too, have a tough time being open and dealing with feelings. I’m sure (to her credit) that being a female Lieutenant has great merit. She is tops in my book for sure!!
All of these positives are what help you get through the “tough stuff.” So, celebrate the positives. You and I will work together to deal with the negatives—the painful days and events.
Today, tomorrow, and other memory days will always be tough to deal with. But you are surviving and trying to cope as best you can. No one should expect anything different. Go with the flow. In other words, do what works best for you and your family. I’m glad you took the day off tomorrow to remember her on the anniversary of her death. How will you spend tomorrow? How will you remember your daughter? It is important to have a plan. It helps get you through the day.
One concern I do have. Again, I am not brow beating you, but I am concerned. You said you “got drunk last night.” Please understand that neither alcohol nor addicting drugs are going to ease this grief, just merely prolong the recovery time. I know how good the booze is at numbing your pain, but I’m sure you find that when you wake up, your grief is still there. The pain has not been diminished by the alcohol. OK, now I get a little personal. You may answer my questions or not…you’re choice. How often do you “get drunk”? Did you use this as a means to deal with your stress from your job and life before your daughter died? Police officers (along with EMS, firefighters and the like) have the highest rate of substance abuse than any other profession. Therefore, I am concerned.
Have you thought about suicide? This is another problem in the law enforcement community and among bereaved parents. You are not abnormal if you have. I just want to make sure that if this is a recurring thought or you have a plan, we address it ASAP.
I believe you to be a warm, caring, and compassionate officer. I believe you possess many good qualities that make you a good man, a good parent, spouse, and friend. Life has dealt you a terrible blow. With time and help, you will survive this. You will never get over it, but you will survive.
Is the pain you are feeling today as intense as it was in the beginning? After your daughter died, when did you finally realize she was dead and you would never see her again or feel her hugs? In other words, when did the numbness wear off—days, weeks, or months after she died? These are questions we will address in future emails.
Stay safe, friend. I am sending you healing HUGS.
About Officer Vince: Vince served in the military from 1974 -1977 with a tour of duty in Korea at the DMZ from 1974-76. He continued in the military reserves until 1989 while working and going to college part-time. Vince attended college for two years at which time he entered the Northern University Police Academy and graduated in 1979. He served on the Tittabawassee Township (MI) Police Department for twelve years. Vince was a patrol officer with the City of Saginaw (MI) Police Department from where he retired.
Vince has worked gang task force and was a detective working various areas from juvenile to homicide. Vince made the decision to return to patrol duty because he wanted to spend more time with his family. Over the years, he has been a firearms instructor for handgun, shotgun, and rifle. Vince is married and has four daughters and three grandsons. At the time of Coco’s death, Vince was a detective in the Major Crimes Division.
About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is a mortician (retired) and bereavement educator. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and trauma, including How to Understand Grief Seminars (HUGS) and the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. She has reached out to her community through support groups for adults and teens as well as bereaved parents. Peggy is a former EMT-B and member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department. You may contact Peggy at firstname.lastname@example.org