You’re not sure how it has already been a year, or five, or more since you lost a partner or member of your department’s family. Everyone seems to be okay and getting along with their new normal, but you don't feel okay. Or maybe you are getting along fine but think you see a partner struggling.
Everyone reacts, remembers, and responders to anniversaries differently, especially in a line of duty death. There is no right way to do any of these things, other than figuring out what works for you.
Let's explore the following topics surrounding anniversaries of a line of duty death in a department:
- Thoughts to consider around anniversaries.
- Warning signs for yourself and partners/others in your department.
- How to help yourself or a partner.
1. Thoughts to consider around anniversaries.
As mentioned above, EVERYONE reacts and handles anniversaries differently, especially anniversaries that can hurt.
Let’s explore expectations first.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to think or feel. “Should I be sad? Should I honor them in some way? No one else seems to be hit like I do.”
When we have expectations for ourselves to match other people around us or expectations of what we think we should do/feel, it’s hardly ever organic to us. What this does is place additional stress, pressure, and unrealistic expectations on us to meet a standard we then try to hold ourselves to.
It can be EXHAUSTING and DRAINING!!
What I would challenge you to do is be honest with yourself about how you really think or feel, what you want to do, and how you want to move through this time. No matter what that looks like.
Try not to put expectations on yourself or judge yourself in this experience.
Next, try not to judge or compare yourself to others.
Take a second to think…what does comparing to or judging others get you?
When we compare and judge it’s a perfect recipe to get angry or frustrated at others and ourselves. Because no one will feel or think EXACTLY like you do.
It can be tough not to compare or judge, but think about the cost you’re paying (getting angry, wasting energy, possibly creating tension with others, etc.). Is it worth it?
Let’s now consider that grief is a unique journey for everyone.
Grief is not a linear process. It can be complex, and you can experience some stages more than once.
Even if you’ve worked through some of your grief, sometimes memories or parts of your grief you didn’t know are there will creep in during these times.
Regardless of where you are on your journey, just be kind to yourself if you start having thoughts or reactions. Pay attention to them, but don’t get down on yourself.
Explore the different stages of grieving here to learn more.
Finally, TRUST YOUR GUT!!
This can be trusting that something is going on with your partner. Trusting that you’re more anxious than normal, even if you are doing okay. Whatever it is, trust yourself.
When we doubt or don’t listen to ourselves, it creates this messy internal thought or feeling pattern of self-doubt. The more we ignore our gut, the more we doubt and question ourselves.
Most law enforcement officers have an amazing “gut instinct.” You have it for a reason. TRUST IT!!!
2. Warning signs for yourself and partners/others in your department.
We all have bad days, but there is a drastic difference between a bad day and changes in your or a partner’s behavior.
Just like you look for warning signs that indicate danger when working, there are warning signs in yourself and others that you can be aware of.
People can show a wide range of signs or behaviors that indicate something might be off.
With partners or others in your department, what is most important to note is if someone is consistently not themselves.
For you, it’s important to be honest and acknowledge what you’re experiencing and where you’re at, so you don’t stay in that place. This helps prevent getting stuck in patterns that keep you feeling heavy, exhausted, and trying to gasp for air.
Check out the lists below of some signs and behaviors to be aware of for yourself and partners.
Individual signs indicating a potential need for help/support:
- Isolating from friends and family.
- Experiencing deep and persistent sadness, anxiousness, or guilt that does not change or even becomes worse.
- Substance use issues arise, from drinking excessively to abusing prescription medications.
- Persistent and intrusive thoughts.
- Escapist coping skills: risky behavior patterns develop (such as intense or excessive risk taking, excessive gambling, working lots of OT, affairs/risky sexual behavior, etc. ).
- Serious thoughts of hurting yourself or others.
- Lack of interest in regular activities.
- Reoccurring nightmares, particularly around the loss or incident.
- Feeling stuck and not being sure how to move on.
Warning Signs for partners or department personnel:
- Isolating from friends or family.
- Drastic changes in behaviors, seems like they are a different person.
- Drinking more than normal; substance use concerns.
- Escalating martial issues/affairs.
- Short fuse/not able to relax.
- Drastic changes in job performance, like getting written up when prior clean record.
- Little to no interest in established hobbies and lifestyle events.
- Expressing thoughts of not knowing what there is to life.
These are just some of the numerous signs and behaviors that individuals struggling can exhibit.
Again, if there’s a consistent and concerning change in behavior for you or a partner, trust your gut when it says something isn’t right.
3. How to help yourself or a partner
There are lots of ways to help yourself or a partner, even though it can seem intimidating.
“How the heck do I help?! I have no clue where to start or what to do. I’m not trained for this.” If thoughts like this enter your mind, it probably means your gut is telling you something is not right.
One of the best things you can do for a partner is let them know you’re there and just listen. Don’t worry about what you’ll say, they likely just need someone who will listen and get them.
For yourself, being honest about not being okay is one of the hardest moments to face in life. This is where change and growth happen, in that moment when we say ”I am not willing to live like this anymore. I’m doing something about this.”
There are lots of ways and resources that can help if you or a partner are struggling. Check out below for some ideas:
- Don’t isolate!!
- Being there/checking in on partners.
- Being honest with yourself.
- Listening to others.
- Practice healthy coping skills and self-care.
- Be kind to yourself.
- Allow yourself to acknowledge and sense thoughts/emotions when safe.
- Maintaining some balance in life.
- Peer support team.
- Checking in with your chaplain.
- Talking with a counselor.
- First responder resources.
Again, what works best for you or how you think you can help a partner is KEY!
Do you have apprehension about reaching out to a partner or anyone in the department if you do find yourself struggling? If so, talking with a licensed counselor can be a beneficial experience. Especially counselors who specialize in working with first responders.
Counselors are there to allow you space to say what you need, without judgements, so you don’t have to keep carrying everything that is weighing you down.
Additional resources include the following counselors and support organizations for first responders:
COPLine - Peer Support: 1-800-267-5463
Safe Call Now: 206-459-3020
You do not have to suffer. You do not have to fight this battle alone. No matter what you are experiencing during this anniversary, know that it’s okay to feel and react however you do.
It’s okay to take care of yourself and your partners. This is what makes you all a family.
Be well and take care,
Liz Durfee, ACSW
Liz is an Associate Clinical Social Worker in California. She is one of our experienced counselors at Code 3 Counseling. Liz specializes in working with first responder and military trauma. You can contact her through our website.
If you find that this exercise or these conversations brought up some stuff you are struggling with, either individually or in your relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. We are here to support you, and we understand that this can be a challenging issue to face.
Remember, it may be your battle, but you don’t have to fight it alone.