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7 tips for supporting a spouse through critical incident stress

The support that can come from the officer’s primary relationship can be especially impactful

By Michelle Moon

Typically when a police officer is involved in a critical incident they are tied up for hours being interviewed after the event. They may have the opportunity to speak with a police chaplain and/or a member of a peer support team, but more often than not they receive a stack of papers that explain what they can expect to experience following the stressful event and are told to head home. What happens after that point is largely dependent upon the policies and culture of each individual department. There can be huge gaps and inadequacies in providing support and care for individuals and their families in the days, weeks, months and even years after such an event.

When the officer arrives home after a critical incident, they may be met with a partner who has little to no knowledge of how to help the officer cope with the stress they may be experiencing. If they are lucky, other officers and their spouses reach out to offer support. Peer support at work and at home is invaluable. Some officers and their families also wisely seek professional counseling. Aside from the support an agency, peers and professionals can provide, the support and resilience that can come from a police officer’s primary relationship can be especially impactful.

Here are some practical things a spouse or significant other can do in the wake of a critical incident.

1. Be prepared

If you receive word your officer has been involved in a critical incident, know that your feelings of stress and anxiety are normal and that your loved one will likely also be experiencing extreme emotions following the event. Expect them to be tied up with red tape before they can come home.

If possible, be home and awake when they arrive and try to minimize any stressors in the home. Have the kids in bed, or farm them out to a family member. Try to make sure the officer doesn’t walk into a giant mess. I know it sounds trivial, but critical incident stress can exacerbate normal stressors and even create new ones. The officer may not even realize this is happening.

After clearing it with the officer, you may also want to place calls to family and/or friends to notify them of the event, especially if there is likely to be media coverage. Offer yourself as the middleman to minimize the number of questions and contact others make with the officer.

2. Expect things to be different

If you’ve read about critical incident stress, you will know what is within the realm of normal behavior after an event. If you are concerned that there is an abnormal or unhealthy response, seek professional help. When the officer is processing their normal response – which will feel anything but normal to them and you – they may need to have extra time and space for healthy coping mechanisms. Try to allow them the ability to do those things by:

  • Taking at least a week off work if possible;
  • Taking on as much childcare and household responsibilities as possible for at least two weeks;
  • Encourage them to take the time they need to work through the stress in positive ways. Hobbies, activities and exercise are good and necessary.
  • Even though you may not feel like it, go on dates and family outings.
  • Spend time outdoors and encourage them to do the same.

This may feel like it is adding a lot to your plate, but try to remember it is in your best interest too, in order to have a healthy partner.

3. Let them talk

If they aren’t talking to you, make sure they have someone they can and are talking to. If they want to talk to you, LET THEM! I never understand when I hear a spouse say they don’t want to or can’t hear about something their officer experienced at work. If they want to share it with you, LISTEN. I know it can be traumatizing to hear, but it is your obligation as their partner. You need to be willing to share their burdens.

4. Turn off social media and avoid the news

This age of keyboard warriors has added a challenging dimension to critical incidents. Everyone has an opinion and thinks they are a professional photographer or videographer, and the media tends to be slanted against law enforcement. Have someone you trust who is further removed monitor media and report back anything important. For example, if an officer’s name or any other identifying information is released, or a pertinent video is released.

5. Maintain a low-stress environment at home

If you need meals, ask for help, or get takeout. Keep things clutter-free and minimize unnecessary distractions and unnecessary company in the home. (Having other officers or support people in the home is an exception and can be very helpful.)

Many officers can experience normal life in a very exaggerated or amplified manner after a critical incident. Normal everyday stressors can be unbearable and even things that went unnoticed before can become overwhelming. This is normal and temporary. If this continues without improvement for longer than a month, or if you feel like it is becoming unhealthy, seek outside assistance.

6. Take care of yourself

Experiencing your own secondary stress following a critical incident is common. Trying to provide support while you yourself are experiencing anxiety can be taxing. Know your limits. If you have the opportunity to talk to other spouses who have been through this, do it, it is invaluable. If you don’t, or it’s not enough, seek outside counseling. Many departments have programs that allow spouses to receive professional counseling.

It’s normal to be fearful of the officer going back to work after a critical incident, but try to fight the urge to ask them not to. Of course, if there is some flexibility as to when they can return, you should discuss it and try to come to a mutual agreement. Explaining that you feel like you need them home longer to ease your own anxiety may be helpful, as many officers feel the need to return to work as quickly as possible.

7. Recognize this is a season

The severity of critical incident stress decreases over time. How much time exactly varies by person and circumstances, but generally speaking, there should be marked improvement during the first four weeks following the incident. Realize that these are often life-changing events and work toward finding normal again, even if it is a new normal. Realize that investigations, media interest, and any lawsuits or legal matters all have end dates. It won’t last forever.

Keep in mind that the mental clarity and emotions of both the officer and their spouse tend to take a hit during this season. It is best to avoid making any life-altering decisions or changes in the time immediately following critical incident stress. Waiting for one to six months would be a good place to start.

Taking some practical steps following a critical incident can give law enforcement officers and their loved ones a sense of control over what can seem like a chaotic situation. As a broader family, we must work toward furthering peer support, both inside agencies and within the greater law enforcement family community.

About the Author
Michelle Moon is a teacher turned stay-at-home mom who is married to her high school sweetheart who is a police officer.