Line of Duty Death Survivors: What Do They Need to Cope With Their Grief?

by Peggy Sweeney

Let us not forget the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives doing their duty to protect and serve. We remember law enforcement and correctional officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel.

Most people half-heartedly acknowledge or completely ignore the news item while searching for more significant information relating to their personal lives; a baseball score, stock market figures, want ads, or horoscopes.

Civilians cannot relate to this type of tragedy nor can they comprehend the depth of grief and gut-wrenching pain that every member of the department is feeling as a result of this tragic death. Their lives will not be changed by this tragedy. Unfortunately, this is not true for the family and co-workers of this fallen hero. Life as they knew it will never be the same again.

Emotions run rampant and your seemingly normal lives spiral into a frightening and dark abyss where pain, loneliness, and grief are constant companions. Surviving this personal and professional tragedy is at times almost unbearable. How do you survive? What lessons can be learned from these experiences?

Before you can learn to cope with this physical pain and grief, you must first understand why you feel and respond to traumatic events as you do. In any loss (divorce, loss of a friendship or job, or geographical relocation) there is grief and mourning. Grief is the emotional, physical, mental, and even spiritual responses human beings experience when their dreams and plans for life take an unexpected turn. Mourning (such as crying) is our outward expression of these feelings.

A small loss experience, such as a rained-out ballgame or a broken promise, can cause grief. You are disappointed, saddened, or angry at the outcome. You unwillingly must surrender control of a situation to unforeseen circumstances or to another person.

Grief and mourning are normal, healthy responses. Each one of us journeys through grief in our own way and on our own time schedule.

When someone dies, our response to this loss is equal to our relationship with this person. The stronger the emotional bond the more intense the grief reactions. To illustrate, the death of an acquaintance pales in comparison to the death of a much-loved family member, friend, or co-worker. In addition, the manner of death (sudden or expected) and our personal life stressors will also influence our grieving.

When our loved one dies suddenly (auto accident, heart attack, line of duty death) we experience immediate grief. There is no time for goodbyes. We cannot tell them we love them, let them know how much we value their friendship or ask forgiveness. In contrast, when a loved one dies from a long-term illness or injury (anticipated or expected death) we may have had the opportunity to prepare for the loss. This is not to say that we will not grieve following an anticipated death but rather that our length of grieving and the extent of our pain may be lessened somewhat because we have expressed our thoughts and vocalized our love and have helped the person who is dying accept their imminent death.

Furthermore, our grieving process may be complicated by various everyday problems like job-related stress, family struggles (such as divorce), financial worries, or personal health issues. These distractions can greatly influence our ability to focus on our grieving which can delay or even suppress the grieving process.

Healing grief is not an easy task. Your grief journey is like a roller coaster ride. Just when you think you are doing better, a memory or a special event in your life will hurl you into the depths of despair. Rejoice in the good moments and days you have; they will
help you survive the more painful and lonely ones. Surviving a loss takes a very long time; many months or even years. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy, and exercise. A journal of your thoughts and experiences will mark your progress in healing and your reinvestments in life and living. It’s ok to cry. This is not
a sign of weakness. You are not going crazy. You are very normal.

Do children grieve? Many people believe that children are resilient. When someone they love dies, they may continue their normal behaviors (playing, interacting with their peers, or even misbehaving) in spite of this person’s death. It may appear that this death has not had an impact on their lives. Do not be deceived. Children, even toddlers, are affected and do grieve. It is important to continue their normal routine as much as possible. They will need tender, loving care. While it may seem that they are adjusting to life after the funeral, it is imperative to keep the lines of communication open. Do not be afraid to share your feelings and frustrations with them. Don’t shy away from talking about the deceased person or asking the child how they are feeling. Be aware that some adolescents and teens may experiment with drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with their grief and emotional pain. A family that has suffered the devastation of loss must reach out and help one another.

A line of duty death impacts the lives of every member of the department as well as their families. It is imperative that they are given information about grief and how to cope with the pain and suffering it creates. The tragic event may trigger nightmares, anxiety, anger, or guilt. It is very important for their physical health and emotional wellbeing that these men and women are provided an outlet, such as a mental health professional, to discuss their feelings. As a result of this life-altering event, they may question their self-worth. They may wonder if anyone appreciates the risks they take.

There are many lessons to be learned on the journey through grief. This special hero has touched many lives and, in their living and dying, they have shared their gifts and talents and have
taught us the value of life. Reach out to adults and children who may be hurting emotionally and share with them all you learned from your grief experiences. By reinvesting in life and sharing love with others you will honor this hero who made the ultimate sacrifice. In so doing, they will never be forgotten.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.

Grief Study is a free, online “class” for those who are coping with the death of a loved one or are experiencing trauma in their life. I encourage you to join us as we walk the journey through grief together.

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