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A brief candle

A personal journey through grief, guilt and the search for suicide prevention in law enforcement


Between Richie’s and Paul’s deaths, I have lost more than a half-dozen additional friends, colleagues and acquaintances to suicide.

Photo/Facebook via Miami Herald

Suicide is always preventable. If you are having thoughts of suicide or feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 800-273-8255. Counselors are available at and at Remember: You deserve to be supported, and it is never too late to seek help. Speak with someone today.

“It’s Paul,” my wife says between sobs. “He killed himself.”

Letting the phone drop into her lap, she buries her face in her hands.

Cutting across three lanes of heavy traffic, I pull onto the shoulder. Placing my hand on her upper back, the shudders travel up my arm, landing heavily in my chest. Uncharacteristically I remain silent, knowing if I attempt to speak, I will fall into the abyss. Instead, I seek answers in the trees, the passing cars, the gray, heavy sky.

His smile and laugh fill my mind, overwhelming me. Blinking away tears, I feel the heaviness in my chest begin to seep through my body. Picking up my phone, I scroll to a recent text exchange. Seeing his last response – his final response – only feeds the denial I am experiencing. I know what this is as I have been trained ad nauseam; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – the stages of grief. I also know they need not come in that order, nor one at a time. And I am feeling very angry – at him and myself.

My first encounter with suicide occurred some 30 years earlier, having recently celebrated my three-year anniversary as a cop, officially transitioning from rookie to veteran officer.

Arriving for a day tour in the predawn darkness, I was stopped by a seasoned officer at least 15 years my senior. Grabbing my arm as I passed the desk, he stage-whispered into my ear, “Richie did himself last night.”

Nodding dumbly, I walked a few steps before turning back towards him.

“What?” I mumbled, still a few cups shy of fully awake.

He proceeded to describe how a young and beloved sergeant had ended his own life some 24 hours earlier. In a horrific way, I recall that period of my life as not just when I became a veteran cop, but an adult.

Between Richie’s and Paul’s deaths, I have lost more than a half-dozen additional friends, colleagues and acquaintances to suicide.

According to NIH statistics, the annual suicide rate for police in the U.S. is 15.3/100,000 officers versus the general population rate of 11/100,000.

When a fellow officer calls for assistance, we respond with single-minded determination, doing whatever we can to get there as quickly as possible, responding on foot, bikes, in vehicles, on horseback, by boat and helicopter. But how do we come to the aid of our sisters and brothers when they might be doing their best to hide their pain from us? From themselves?

As reported by, individual factors contributing to death by suicide can include a prior attempt, mental health issues such as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, financial or legal problems, violent or impulsive tendencies and addiction. As we in the law enforcement community know all too well, easy access to firearms is also considered a major risk factor.

Further signs include a family history of death by suicide, being the victim of emotional and or sexual abuse, neglect, or bullying.

We should also be on the lookout for sudden changes in behavior that may or may not be linked with any of the above-listed factors. Things such as drastic personality changes, sudden sadness, or lack of concern for personal hygiene or appearance are all red flags. Ironically, when any of these things are followed by an abrupt calmness after a period of depression or moodiness, it can be a sign that the individual has made a decision to end his or her life, often bringing a temporary respite from their pain.

In the wake of Paul’s death, I wallowed for months in a stupor of guilt and anger, beating myself for not seeing the signs, seemingly wasting all the knowledge and experience I thought I’d internalized over the decades since Richie took his own life.

In part, I knew it was because Paul was by far the closest friend I’d lost to death by suicide. Having met in our 20s after being assigned to the same command, we became fast friends, truly brothers. Both of us Sicilian-American, we had similar personalities, loved to talk and laugh, meet new people. We even grew up in adjacent neighborhoods on the Brooklyn-Queens border.

Searching for clinical definitions of grief I found the following from the American Psychological Association; “Grief is the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person. Grief often includes physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future.” For a simpler, more resonant rendering, I came upon “Grief is just love with no place to go,” which is attributed to songwriter Jamie Anderson.

Despondent, I reached out to a former colleague, someone who knew most of the same deaths by suicide as I, herself a person who has warred with her demons, who once confided she had considered ending it all.

“It truly sucks, brother,” she said over the phone. “But knowing you, I know you did what you could, even if it wasn’t entirely conscious.”

As I attempted to mutter a response, she cut me off.

“Listen. We obviously need to stay aware of this; it’s a huge issue. But trust me when I tell you, whether it’s drinking, using, or taking one’s own life, there’s a limit to how much you can assist anyone. We can offer a shoulder, give advice, lend an ear, try to get the people the help they need.”

I nodded silently.

“Look, you’ve got what, a hundred pounds and at least a foot on me? Do you really think that would have helped you stop me from drinking, using, or doing myself if I’d really wanted to?” she asked, her voice rising.

I waited.

“I’m telling you – I swear on my kids’ eyes – when I was truly lost and out of my mind, I’d have looked you straight in the eye and promised I was going home. Then I’d have gone directly to the pub and drank until I couldn’t remember even having spoken to you. Your guilt is commensurate with your love, but it’s misplaced. We have to keep a close eye on each other, be there when asked, be willing to do almost anything. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much one can do.”

For Richie, Terry, Jackie, Lydia, Stephanie, Finbarr, Pete, Lou and both Pauls.

Joe Badalamente was a police officer with the NYPD from 1985-2005. His short story Partner won the AKC Gazette’s 24th Annual Fiction competition. His first novel, “The King & Me; A Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” is available on Amazon. It was named a finalist in the 2023 International Book Awards, the only independently published book to be nominated in the category, and won Outstanding Novella in the Independent Author Network 2022 competition.