The Impact of a Critical Incident on Spouses

Jen Gudat discusses how a critical incident impacted her as a spouse.

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One day in mid-November, I received a DM on Facebook that read, “Do you have normal police wives on your podcast to just tell our stories? I’m just at that point of wanting to let other wives know that they aren’t alone.” I responded back something sarcastic like, “I mean, are any of us normal?” At the same time, I let her know that I would love her to share her story. Jen Gudat is a tenured police spouse whose husband was involved in a critical incident, but uninjured. She thought she should be fine and had a really hard time admitting that she wasn’t. It took her husband responding to a mall shooting almost a year later for her to admit that she was really not okay. Jen shares her story about how she was impacted, her struggle to admit the impact, and her message to others that are struggling in silence.

Being a Law Enforcement Spouse

Being a new law enforcement spouse can be difficult. There can be feelings of apprehension and fear every time your partner walks out the door. Many times, it can leave spouses feeling like this wasn’t what they signed up for. Jen felt this exact way as her husband transitioned from being a reserve police officer for free on the weekends to a full-time officer with a metropolitan police department. There was an adjustment period for her family to adapt to shift work, missed family dinners, and school activities. Eventually, spouses get used to the impact of the career because you have to figure out how to let your officer walk out of the door every shift. It’s something you get accustomed to, You don’t have a choice. Jen, like many others, experienced and dealt with the impact of the career, but nothing can prepare anyone for the impact of a critical incident.

The impact of the critical incident on the spouse

On August 27th, 2021, Jen’s husband, Noel, was involved in his first critical incident. “I remember getting that phone call that night and I could immediately tell in his voice that something was wrong.” Her husband could not say much, only that he was ok and that he wasn’t sure when he would be home. Five hours after the incident and after multiple calls and texts from family, he came home. There was a feeling of helplessness as a spouse because there was nothing Jen could do besides ask “Are you okay?” only to receive the answer of “I’m fine.” The wellness unit was in contact with Jen’s family to see if anyone needed help or anyone to talk to. Jen like Noel responded with “I’m fine.” She was so focused on making sure that Noel was okay, that she didn’t let herself experience emotions associated with the critical incident. Saying “I’m fine” can sometimes be a way to convince yourself that you are okay when you are not.

Often as couples, there is a mindset to be okay or “fine” for the other person. There is a need to be strong for our partners while hiding our feelings in an attempt to protect them. This creates the thought process of keeping emotions private to allow the officer to be on their “A-game” while on shift and not talking about things that really matter. This doesn’t allow the space to share what is going on. This can spill over into relationships with other spouses. It can lead a veteran spouse to have the mentality to sacrifice their own emotions as a way to be strong for other, newer spouses involved.

Feelings of fear, apprehension, and anxiousness started to bubble to the surface for Jen as Noel returned to work. There were flashbacks of getting another phone call. In July of 2022, Noel responded to a mall shooting and Jen received the dreaded phone call, again. Noel was fine, but Jen was not, and she had not been since the first critical incident.

She had feelings of not being able to handle the career any longer and guilt and shame for expressing those feelings. The focus needed to shift to address the emotions Jen had been carrying with her since the first situation. Suffering in silence wasn’t good for Jen, her family, or her marriage. She reached out to the wellness unit which put her in contact with a therapist that specialized in first responders and their families.

Jen has several recommendations for spouses anytime they find that they are struggling, critical incident or not.

Reach out for help

As an officer or spouse, if you recognize some of the signs and symptoms of having the reluctance to go to work or allowing your spouse to go to work due to fear and anxiety, ask for help. Don’t be ashamed of taking the first step to becoming mentally healthy. It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to reach out to anyone who supports you. Whether it be peer support or a professional, ask for guidance. Struggling is part of being human.

Find support in the law enforcement community

Get to know your spouse’s department and their partners before a significant event happens. Set up this type of support system, so you can openly share your feelings and experiences with a group of people who get it! They can provide insight and a feeling of unity in dealing with police-specific types of situations.

Stop what “iffing”! 

When we “what if” about scenarios, it is our brains’ way of trying to figure out a way to protect us from hurting in the future. It convinces us that if we prepare ourselves for every terrible situation that could happen, then it would hurt less if one should occur. That is not how it works! What “iffing” creates panic, worry, and more fear. It also stops many from being present and “in the moment”. If you find yourself having a case of the “what ifs” keep busy with hobbies and activities that bring you joy. Participate in any activity that will keep your brain from filling empty space or thoughts, with “what ifs”. Keep your mind healthy by focusing on being the best version of yourself while still being able to support your spouse.

The impact of a critical incident doesn’t have to be negative!  

In Jen’s case, the impact of her husband’s critical incident led to improved communication which made their marriage stronger. They were able to talk about deeper subjects and more about life. This applies to all critical incidents whether you were involved directly or indirectly, you can still be impacted. Situations involving other officers and spouses can shift and change your reality. Everyone can be impacted by these incidents and it’s important to communicate.  Remember, you are each other’s safe place.

Realize you’re human. Law enforcement life can be crazy but it gets better. Keep communication open with your spouse. Find things to keep yourself busy while they’re at work. Find camaraderie with other police families. If you don’t know your spouse’s partners and their families, get to know them! They will understand the impact the career has on families and can provide the support that the average person cannot.

Jen Gudat and her husband have been married for 28 years and have two children together.

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The Impact of a Critical Incident on Spouses

Jen Gudat discusses how a critical incident impacted her as a spouse.

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