The 7 layers of police grief after a line-of-duty death
When a fellow officer is killed in the line of duty, your friends and family may struggle to understand your grief; here’s why
By Troy Kneebone, P1 Contributor
November 6, 2017, is a day I will never forget. At approximately 11:40 a.m., Constable John Davidson of the Abbotsford Police Department was responding to a report of shots fired by a suspect in a stolen vehicle at a local strip mall. Davidson was the first police officer to arrive and was tragically shot and killed by the suspect.
The news hit our department and our community hard. It is the first time a police officer had been shot and killed in the line of duty in the department’s history.
I was out of town the week this happened, and the distance apart from my brothers and sisters made the impact more difficult for me. As I sat in my hotel room I experienced many emotions – shock, disbelief, anger and incredible sadness. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with in my life.
As I worked through my emotions, I began to receive messages of condolence from friends and family. They all meant well, but most of them did not fully understand the immense weight and impact of this loss.
Their messages said things such as, “Sorry to hear about your coworker. That must be hard” or “Sorry for your department’s loss.” As I was finding it difficult to even function, these messages just seemed trivial and trite. Reading them I struggled to understand why they didn’t quite “get it.”
I started to wonder if I was overreacting. Was my sorrow bigger and deeper than was warranted?
As I began to analyze my grief I came to the realization that unless you are a police officer, you cannot possibly know what this feels like. The police culture is complex and unique and this circumstance will never be experienced by “regular” people.
What we need to do as police officers is to explain to those who love and support us the emotions we feel and why.
To that end, I have outlined issues I believe are only experienced by police officers. I call them “layers” because each one adds depth and weight to our grief. These layers make an LODD so much more than “losing a coworker.”
These points are not meant to “scold” or “finger point” or say, “You don’t understand.” They are meant to help civilians understand the unique grief a police officer experiences when a colleague is killed in the line of duty.
Layer 1: The Thin Blue Line
The police culture is a family. We don’t talk about “coworkers,” we call each other “members"; not because we are a member of a club, but because we are family members.
This family is not limited to our own department; it applies to everyone who wears the uniform.
When John’s body was taken from the hospital to the morgue, over 100 police officers from neighboring cities came to Abbotsford to escort John for the 53-kilometer journey. And they did it again a few days later to bring him back home. Most of these officers didn’t know John personally, but they all considered him a family member.
Though technically we are “coworkers,” police officers work in a much different environment to a “regular” job. We band together, standing shoulder to shoulder, watching each other’s backs while we face evil most people never see. We fight together, protect each other and celebrate victories together. The experiences and stresses we endure bind us in a way that cannot be duplicated.
Most people outside of policing don’t think of their coworkers as family and do not have the strong ties to each other that we as police officers do.
Layer 2: It was murder
This is difficult to say, and perhaps difficult to read, but John did not just pass away; John was murdered. We didn’t lose him, he was taken from us. He was taken simply because he was a police officer doing his job. There was no reason for this. John did not do anything that would cause someone to react in this way. He simply arrived at the scene of a crime and was murdered because he wore the uniform.
Most people don’t get murdered at work for simply doing their job.
Layer 3: Vicarious trauma
We have all thought, “That could have been me.” Our spouses and families have all thought, “That could have been you.” We replay what happened in our minds and imagine it was us. We think about the impact our own death would have on our families and our families think the same. The vulnerability and fragility of our humanness become very apparent. We are not indestructible Hollywood action heroes and any one of us could be in the situation John found himself in.
For most people, if a coworker dies (for example, at home from a heart attack) they do not think, “That could have been me.”
Layer 4: Survivor’s guilt
This goes hand in hand with layer three. We all think about what we could have/should have done differently. We all wonder, “If I had been there, could I have helped? Could I have prevented it?” And then we start trying to place blame, thinking, “If only we had this equipment” or “If only this policy was different or “If only this training was different.”
Aside from suicide, most people will likely never experience “survivor guilt” when a coworker dies.
Layer 5: We are still open for business
We have to keep working. The normal, everyday policing calls still come in. We still have to deal with domestic disputes, assaults, thefts, robberies, neighborhood disturbances and traffic complaints. We can’t just stop answering the phones to allow time to grieve. We do not have that option. We have to keep working.
In the “regular” workplace it is not uncommon for a business to close when there is an employee death or tragedy.
Layer 6: Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD)
After an LODD, most people see it as an event or incident that occurred but is now in the past. They do not realize that police officers lives are changed forever. We deal with the impact of an LODD for the rest of our lives.
Over the years, as the pain eases, we experience unexpected waves of emotions as something seemingly benign triggers our memories. Every time we drive on “that” road, we are reminded. Every time we enter “that” strip mall, we are reminded. Every time we see a car like the suspect drove, we are reminded. And each of us will have our own personal memories of the officer killed that can be triggered in unique ways.
Sometimes we will be reminded while we are awake, other times while we sleep. Sometimes we will expect it, other times it will catch us completely off-guard.
Most people will not likely suffer PTSD after the death of a coworker.
Layer 7: Suck it up
Cops are the tough guys. We are not supposed to show our emotions. We have to control our emotions every single day. We are obligated to do this because people depend on us. We cannot arrive at a disturbing scene and fall apart. Often we have to pretend that we are okay even when we are not.
Policing culture has changed over the years as we recognize that showing emotions is healthy for the healing process. We are encouraged to seek help and it is crucial that we don’t keep our emotions bottled up. However, although we have tried to remove the stigma, it is foolish to believe it doesn’t still exist.
Cops are proud. We are proud of our profession and proud to protect the people we serve. No one wants to admit they are struggling. No one wants fellow officers to see them as “weak” or worry that they will break down in the middle of the next emergency situation.
Most people are allowed and expected to show their weakness; there is no “tough as nails” persona they are expected to portray.
The next step
These layers all make policing unique. Aside from a soldier serving in the military, I am confident in saying there are no other jobs that contain all these layers. This is the reality we live in. This is the reality that we are grieving and mourning in. These are the factors that make our grief deeper and heavier than “regular” people realize.
So what can we do? First off we need to support each other. This is not the time to lay blame or to discuss “what if’s”; this is the time where we need each other the most.
For our non-police family and friends, we need to explain these layers. Don’t push them away because they don’t “get it.” Your friends and family want to get it. They want to help you. They want to support you. But it is up to us to show them how. It is our responsibility to help them understand the complexity and uniqueness of police grief. We owe it to our fellow officers so that we can heal and become better police officers for each other.
We owe it to John.
About the author
Troy Kneebone is a police officer with the Abbotsford Police Department, located in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada (approximately 45 miles outside of Vancouver). He has worked at APD for over 13 years, with experience in general duties and complex investigations, and has worked for five years as part of a covert surveillance team. He is currently a constable in the Patrol Division. He can be reached at email@example.com.