Supporting others through Grief in Law Enforcement with Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW

When someone close to us struggles with grief, mind your words. We need to be careful with what we say and how we say it because the first contact we make with someone after they’ve had a loss is one, they won’t forget. Be aware of what you are saying so you don’t unintentionally retraumatize a person.

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“2 Denton officers stabbed while trying to arrest sex offender.”

“Pennsylvania officer killed; 2 injured during burglary.”

“An officer was killed, and two others wounded after a chase in Missouri.”

These are just a few of the headlines in the past few months. Behind these headlines is a lot of grief.

Unfortunately, more and more officers are being hurt or injured. This morning, I woke up to find out that two officers in Denton Texas, which is the community I serve, we’re stabbed. Our officers are still under attack and deaths/injuries are happening at an alarming rate. As a community, we know we are being targeted.

Grief in Law Enforcement

We experience different types of grief as law enforcement couples, including the grief of the life we may have dreamed such as having dinner and holidays together. You may be grieving the support of a community or safety you once felt. You may be also grieving the death of an officer you know personally or in the community. For that reason, I have brought on Jill Johnson- Young, the grief guru. Jill is a LCSW, former hospice and child welfare worker that has worked very closely with law enforcement officers. Professionally and personally, Jill has seen grief firsthand.

During stages of grief, we want to show up for each other. Sometimes we don’t always know the individuals that were directly impacted. We may know their last names because that’s how we know them, but maybe we don’t know the spouse or the family, and we want to figure out how to go beyond T’s and P’s and casserole dishes. If you don’t know what T’s and P’s are, that is thoughts and prayers. Grief is uncomfortable. In a community of individuals who “fix everything,” grief is not something you can fix.

Grief 101

When someone close to us struggles with grief, mind your words. We need to be careful with what we say and how we say it because the first contact we make with someone after they’ve had a loss is one, they won’t forget. Be aware of what you are saying so you don’t unintentionally retraumatize a person.

Phrases we should avoid

“They are in a better place.”

“You should be grateful.”

“Lean on your faith.”

“You know they are in heaven so it should be ok with you.”

“You are young, you can remarry.”

“You can get pregnant again.”

“You have an angel watching over you.”

Questions to avoid

“Were there any preexisting conditions present?”

“Was he wearing a vest?”

When asking this type of question, we are looking for a reason that separates us and we need to stop. If someone has died of traumatic death, don’t ask, don’t ask about the details. If someone dies by suicide, don’t ask them how.

How you can show support

Use your sense of humor

Remember the things that you loved about that person and reflect them to the person who’s had the loss.

Sharing stories is important.

Just be with the person who has experienced the loss.

What does just “being” with someone look like?

Companion the person in their loss. If they’re open to people coming over, go to their house and sit with them. If they want to talk, let them talk. If they don’t, you don’t have to fill up the silence. You can just be there. Do the dishes. If they’ve got small kids say, “Do you mind if I just take the kids out and we’ll get some pizza, ice cream, and give you a little bit of time to yourself?”

The other thing you’re looking for is to see if someone is struggling with getting just the activities of daily living going. Do they need some help because they are in shock? Especially if you’re talking, in terms of law enforcement and a sudden loss or traumatic loss, there are a million decisions to make. You’re looking for where someone needs support because the stress of everyday living is magnified.

Support is also needed in making decisions that they want to make. Everybody has an opinion, and this is their loss. Listen for what they want remembered and who they want included and give them that grace.

Showing up for someone weeks or month after a loss in Law Enforcement

There’s nothing quite like getting something in the mail, that’s not social security or death benefit related. There’s an incredible amount of paperwork that happens after someone dies that you don’t realize until they do. It’s nice to have the fun stuff, show up, make sure that you remember birthdays and that you remember their anniversary. If it was a miscarriage, make sure that you remember what day the child was supposed to be born. If it was a wedding that never happened, remember the date of when the wedding was going to me. Make sure that you are referencing them by name. Include them during the holidays. Make ornaments for the Christmas tree. If they celebrate Hanukah, have multiple menorahs, including a family memorial menorah. If it’s a pet, make sure that they get an ornament on the tree. Pet losses count as much as people losses do. Invite them out to social settings and give them the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to be included. You want to make sure that you are remembering them and saying their names rather than having this empty space. We want to fill it up.

Phases to avoid after time has passed after a loss

“You’re taking too long.”

“Aren’t you over it yet?”

“Get past it.”

Every grief is different, and everybody has their own process of grief. Honoring that even though maybe you’re in a different place or they’ve moved faster than you think they should, it’s not yours.

Helping with grief when you don’t know the person

Many times, in departments, we don’t know the family, but we want to show up. Cards are really important or making some kind of contact through the mail. Attend memorial group gatherings. The research shows that after traumatic loss, it is really important to gather together and to be physically present and to show support. Even if the family doesn’t come, they will go back and look at those videos. For them to see people were there and cared, that matters. That’s healing. If you are going to make a casserole, put it in a dish you don’t want back! Don’t create more work for the person by having them track you down to return a casserole dish. A GoFundMe is a great idea because death is expensive and death benefits don’t go far.

Jill philosophy 101

Grief does not last forever. At least it should not. We should be able to finish up those relationships and finish the trauma. It can be extensive at times. Don’t get me wrong. We should be able to move into this new world where we take that person with us in whatever capacity they were before, whether it was a colleague or it was a spouse or a child, we take them with us, but we don’t have to grieve forever. The other problem is not only do we not talk about death and dying, but we also have all these stupid memes out there that say things like grief is the measure of your love. You never get over the loss of someone you love. You should never stop grieving. If you stop grieving, you didn’t love them enough.

We grieve when we lose. There is safety grief in regard to somethings kind of broken through our shields and it’s infiltrated us in a way. We’re having to rethink the way we’re seeing things. Those losses impact in other ways, not just ones that we were directly in the relationships with, but directly in friendships or working with them one on one. There needs to be space for officers to support each other. There needs to be space and understanding that you’re going to grieve at different times based upon the way you’ve been injured, or the way grief has impacted you. Maybe you haven’t grieved some of the prior loss that you’ve been a part of.

Grief in Law Enforcement children

Jill’s written several children’s book about grief. Someone is Sick is a book that talks about grief while someone is dying of an illness. Someone I loved just died: What happens now? is one for what happens after someone dies. Here are her recommendations when talking about grief with children.

  1. Be open, honest, and concrete about the loss.

  2. Have them wear comfortable clothing during the funeral.

  3. Give them the choice to attend services.

  4. Make sure they know it’s ok if they want to leave the service.

  5. Don’t make the children kiss the casket.

  6. Allow space for them to hang out with friends.

  7. Show up for them whatever way they need you too.

So, guys stay away from the T’s and P’s. Watch your language. Do have meaningful words and meaningful activity. Even if that’s just making space. When we are supporting each other in the community, we just need to continue to show up for individuals that have lost somebody, whether that’s, you’ve lost a friend, a colleague, a spouse. We just need to continue to show up and keep those stories and those memories alive and support each other through the whole entire thing.

If you want to get ahold of Jill, visit her website at JillJohnsonYoung.com

She is also on Instagram @jilljohnsonyounglcsw and Facebook Jill.JohnsonYoung

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Supporting others through Grief in Law Enforcement with Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW

When someone close to us struggles with grief, mind your words. We need to be careful with what we say and how we say it because the first contact we make with someone after they’ve had a loss is one, they won’t forget. Be aware of what you are saying so you don’t unintentionally retraumatize a person.

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