Nancy Berns Ph.D.

Freedom to Grieve

Living After a Police Officer Dies

Where do families turn when their police officer dies?

Posted May 15, 2015

Walking into the large reception area, one might initially think there were many families on vacation.  People talking and laughing in small groups with children darting around big islands holding the breakfast spread.  

If you look closer, you’ll see some of them wiping away tears.  You’ll see the exhausted look of fresh grief on many faces.  For others, eyes shine with appreciation of being among family—not related by blood but related by blood lost. 

Observe the clothing. You’ll notice many shirts with memorial messages such as “Some people wait a lifetime to meet their hero.  Mine raised me.”  Or “My brother’s life mattered.”  Some shirts include favorite Bible verses.  Looking closer, you’ll see many people wearing buttons with pictures of smiling police officers. 

Nancy Berns
Source: Nancy Berns

In the hall is a memory board filled with tangible signs of heartache.  The messages written by children seem to jump out the most. 

“I love you Dad and miss you.” 

“I will never forget you mom! I love you with all my heart!!” 

 “I wish you were here to see my accomplishments.”   

“I love you PawPaw.”

Some of the messages starkly remind us of relationships that are affected for generations after death: 

“I miss you Grandad even though I never met you.”  

“I wish you could see your grandchildren you have.”

This is the annual gathering of C.O.P.S.:  Concerns of Police Survivors.   Families, friends, and co-workers of police officers who have died come together to support each other during National Police Week in Washington D.C.   The C.O.P.S. organizers work tirelessly to provide sessions for the different groups of survivors: children, adult children, parents, spouses, siblings, co-workers, and in-laws.  They have events through the year in other locations, too.

Most of the people there had a police officer die in the past 12 months.   But some of them are returning to the conference years later.  One woman had a brother killed 40 years ago, which she shared with tears.  Several people told me they are returning to the conference over 10 years since their loved one died primarily to support the new survivors.  Yet, each of them also said they were greatly touched by the conference in ways not anticipated. 

I had the honor of giving a keynote address for their first day of the conference. The families can spend up to a week there participating in various activities, candlelight vigils, and memorial services along with the support sessions.   

My favorite part of being at the conference was talking with survivors.  Their stories of heartache, courage, and hope never cease to amaze.  It can be overwhelming to look at a room of over 800 people and know that each of them carries a tragic story.   But you need to know that they have beauty in their stories, too.  

My talk centered on how to carry joy and grief together—assuring them that they did not need “closure” to heal.  That message resonates with survivors.  They want to talk about their loved ones. They need to have time and freedom to grieve.  They are capable of laughing and having joy, but they also need the space to be in pain.  Some of them are angry and need a place to vent.  Some want to share how God is faithful to them in their grief.  They have stories to share.

The Director of the FBI and the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service both gave moving tributes to the families.  The survivors appreciated the leaders of these law enforcement agencies reaching out to them.  But I sensed that for many survivors, what they wanted even more was for a greater percentage of  “everyday people” in their lives to walk the long road with them.

To be fair, many of them do have that kind of support, or at least have one or two people who provide that long-term encouragement.  But we can do better.  As one survivor said, “It’s like everyone needs sensitivity training. They shouldn’t ask me how I feel if they are not willing to hear me out.”  One of the hardest things to hear is people talk about how friends and family no longer want to listen to them.  Sometimes even just days or weeks after a death, they are told to “move on.”   

Here is a brief thought on how to support those grieving.  Understand it is not your place to take away their pain.  Don’t try to fix anything.  I understand people worry about not knowing what to say.   Take the pressure off yourselves regarding your vocabulary because there are no “right words” to make it better.  Survivors don’t want you to talk them into feeling better.  They want people to be present in their pain.  Listen without trying to use words to make them change how they feel.  Listen without many words at all.  Many people feel better by having a chance to talk and share their journey. 

It takes time. And there is no “going back to normal” for them.  However, there is hope and healing as they learn to live with loss.  And there is beauty, faith, hope, and strength in that journey.  Speaking of beauty, most of the leaders in this organization are returning survivors—mothers, co-workers, fathers, spouses, adult children, siblings—who now light the way for newly bereaved families. 

Thank you to the C.O.P.S. organization for allowing me to join you.   What an amazing amount of support you give to thousands of families around the nation. I’m sorry so many need you, but I’m thankful you are reaching out.