Healing After a Line of Duty Death

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[Trigger warning: This blog discusses line of duty deaths and the associated emotions.]

The worst part after a tragedy is feeling helpless. We expect more of ourselves, to help those we love, fix the hurt caused. First responder families know the fear and pain that come with a line of duty death. It’s unlike any other funeral or any other loss. Most people don’t go through life wondering if their spouse or loved one is safe and will come home. So, for those who do, a line of duty death means their worst fear becomes reality. Now the fear becomes more valid, more frightening.

“If the fatality is a duty-related death, as in the case of firefighters and police officers, the potential for prolonged traumatic stress is intensified due to the sudden and sometimes violent nature of the event. Family members of slain first responders and public safety officers often undergo further trauma related to investigations, court proceedings, and media exposure.”

International Journal of Emergency Mental Health (February 2007)

How can a person come away from this horror and be present for their first responder? A mother is reeling from loss, a wife or husband is trying to hold it together for their kids, coworkers must return to their shifts as though nothing happened. They must do it all while sometimes reliving the trauma through additional proceedings. How?

There is never one answer.

Support System

When one person suffers a loss, people around come together to support the family and help that person process the loss. When a first responder family suffers a loss, especially in the case of a line of duty death, the entire department, even those in other departments, suffer as well. They may not all be trying to put food on the table or pay the bills of the fallen responder, but the emotional toll is high. This means the support system needs to rise to meet those greater needs.

While a widow or widower may require friends and family for support, departments require all this and more. The whole community needs to come together in support. Services need to be available for all affected. Access needs to be made clear as well.

When you’re reeling and processing such a tragedy, you can’t think straight. You can’t comprehend going to your doctor and getting on a waiting list for a therapist. You need help thinking, coming up with a grocery list, remembering to get gas in your car. Life isn’t normal anymore. There’s a new normal to be had and you need help navigating that.

New Normal

While you’re suffering from loss and all its circumstances, the world does go on and you must also. There will be days when you feel safe again; there will be happiness again. Getting there is the hard part. You must find your new normal.

Nicoletti and Dvoskina (February 2018) tell us, “In dealing with a line of duty death you must develop the ‘New Normal.’ Don’t engage in self-blaming or a negative cycle of ‘what ifs.’ Instead, focus on the factors that you can control, and recognize/accept what you cannot control.” Nicoletti-Flater Associates specialize in police and public safety psychology, crisis intervention, and trauma recovery.

One of the main focuses in coaching is helping coaching partners to discover what can be controlled, especially after experiencing things out of one’s control. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight, but that can be vital to moving forward. Once you get over that hump of helplessness – where you can’t control anything and feel useless – you realize all the things you can control and start to feel valuable and empowered once again. You will begin to find your new normal. The loss doesn’t get better, but coping does.

Helping Your First Responder

We say at First Responder Coaching that you can’t pour from an empty cup. So, the first step in helping your first responder is helping yourself. You don’t have to feel completely okay, but you need to have your two feet firmly planted in order to help lift up your loved one.

Here’s some suggestions (with help from Nicoletti) for you and your first responder:

  • Don’t dwell on “why” as those kinds of questions will only perpetuate a sense of helplessness.
  • Spend time with family and friends. Not only does this help guard against negative self-talk that happens more when you’re alone, but it promotes healing to be around those you love and care about.
  • Believe in your community. Coming together as a community and feeling community support helps you to regain a sense of safety and purpose. You can feel some control and belonging, even empowered.
  • Avoid alcohol as a coping mechanism. While it helps some to feel better in the moment, it worsens anger and other negative emotions and hurts relationships.

While you work on taking care of yourself with these points, you can apply them to your first responder by either suggesting point blank or encouraging them in a less direct manner.

“Hey, we’re going to a fundraiser to help the family. Can you bring the pie and pack the chairs?” You’re mentioning a community event and giving a physical job that needs to be done. Having a physical thing to do helps a person feel in control and gives a small purpose in the moment. These build one up as they get accomplished.

Avoid Overload

With court proceedings, news outlets, and other ongoing channels that revisit the trauma, anyone can get overwhelmed and even mentally re-injured. Nicoletti offers suggestions for this as well which can be applied to yourself and your first responder.

  • “Respond to the psychological trauma the same way you would respond to a physical trauma: You wouldn’t judge yourself for needing a doctor’s assistance resetting a broken bone so don’t judge yourself if you need assistance resetting after a psychological trauma. Utilize whatever resources you have available to you including family, friends, spiritual advisors, or mental health professionals.”
  • “Make stress reduction a priority- Downtime is essential. Avoid burnout by regularly engaging in activities you find pleasurable and that allow you to recharge. You don’t question your phone battery’s need to recharge each day so why assume you don’t need to recharge as well? Once energy is depleted, action is required before it can be replenished – no one has an endless supply and energy doesn’t magically restore.”
  • “Set boundaries around social media and news media coverage. Constant exposure can be exhausting and re-traumatizing.”

Help is Here

Whatever you do that works for you, keep rechecking in on yourself and your first responder. Healing takes time. Bones need to reset, bruises need to heal, scabs take time to form. Our mental health is the unseen portion of us that also takes time to heal and strengthen. Take care of you, breathe, and take care of your first responder where and when you can. If you need further assistance in navigating any of this, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. FRC is here for you.