Whatever crises our officers undergo, they need us, and they need us to be strong.
Depending on the circumstances, we could be the ones who are there for them to talk out some of the emotion. But when it's too big for us, we can come alongside and love them enough to get them the help they need. Whatever they are dealing with, they need to know they aren't alone.
Our officers, however, may not want to be "fixed." It's their deal, and they want to work it out. In this situation, perhaps they don't understand the effects on us and our children. Maybe pride is a factor. Maybe they have adopted a cultural view that police officers are supposed to be tough and not show weakness. Sometimes they need space to wrok out the answer rather than depending on us too much.
Depending on your officer's department, there may be a stigma against bringing up stress. In some cases, doing so may jeopardize their career. For many years, the culture of law enforcement has been to ignore responses to trauma. These responses have been labeled as weakness. Fortunately, the thinking within law enforcement circles is gradually changing into thinking that trauma is a natural response to the unnatural incidents that our cops experience. While this new way of thinking is slowly making its way throughout the country, it isn't yet universal. If this is the case for your officer, he/she will need a safe listener, and it may need to be you.
Here are practical ways you can help in the aftermath of trauma:
Right after the trauma:
Be quiet. Your officer is on overload and can't handle conversation. It won't be like this forever. Sitting quietly, laying beside them, softly touching him if he's okay with that, all are considered a ministry of presence. This is comforting.
Listen. When she is ready to talk, be available. Your time and attention are a much-needed gift. Liz's husband Scott had been through a horrible trauma on duty. Her immediate thoughts were, "It's not about me; it's about him. My job right now is to match him. If he needs to cry, let him cry. If he's angry, let him be angry." This loans our officers our strength and inner fortitude. It gives them a safe place--a foundation from which they will need to get up off the pavement and begin to walk again. As an aside, Liz didn't cry for two and a half days--her emotions were put on hold in survival mode while she was there for her husband. The tears came later. This is absolutely normal!
Ensure he sleeps. Sleep is the body and brain's natural healing process. Do whatever you have to do to get him some sleep. Alcohol seems like it will help, but it doesn't. Alcohol will make him tired, but inhibits REM sleep, which is exactly what is needed for the brain to heal.
Ask for help from others. Meal trains. Child care. Family pitching in. You can't do this alone.
Create that safety zone. Liz and Scott were given a hotel room for a weekend to hide away for a couple days to gain their bearings. Liz asked if they could have a hot tub in the hotel room as she thought it would help him relax. That's exactly what it did.
Have sex. There's something about trauma that brings about the need for survival sex. Oblige him--he needs it more often with a deeper intensity. As spouses, we are the only ones who can comfort him in this way.
After some time:
Be patient. Wait for the healing to trickle in. Pray. Some things can't be solved right away. Put aside expectations and frustration.
Make an appointment for him to get a physical. Stress can take a toll on his body. Nip healthy problems in the bud.
Create delicious, healthy meals for your family. Stress tends to increase a desire for junk.
Discourage making important decisions when she is overwhelmed.
Maintain normalcy with life. Routine can keep balance in the midst of trials.
Get her out and about. It may be a kayak ride on the local pond. It may be a walk in your neighborhood. A fishing trip. Camping. Something to get her out without a lot of crowds and interaction. Then eventually as she feels comfortable add places that have more people and close friends. Don't allow her to isolate. Nudge, but don't push.
Invest in your relationship. Even after things subside a bit, you need to make time for the two of you and with the kids. Strength comes in togetherness, not isolation.
Communicate directly. If symptoms are persisting or if he's resorting to alcohol, porn, food, prescription or illegal drug use, you must address it quickly. Find healthier solutions for prolonged symptoms.
Extend gracious understanding and forgiveness. This breaks up confrontations and sometimes uncontrolled responses.
Support in a way that is not codependent. We want to understand them as our officers, but that doesn't mean making excuses for their behavior. If there is a problem, treat it as reality and work toward a solution. If it's an issue like burnout she's dealing with, that could be easily identified and worked through without professionals. But if it's bigger and deeper, seek help.
Take advantage of programs and assistance. Check out our resource page for critical incident and trauma assistance on a national level. Check if your department has an employee assistance program. They are designed to help police officers get the help they need, sometimes even paying for counseling. Inquire if your husband's department has a peer support program where other officers have gone through something similar. Some agencies also offer support groups for related issues. If you can't find anything in your area and are reluctant to contact the department, contact us at email@example.com, and we'll find something for you!
Write down your feelings through the journey. When you're on the other side, you can look back and see how far you both have come.
As backup, we must also practice safety precautions while coming to the aid of him when he is in danger. Like supporting a loved one through surgery and recovery, so it goes for those of us who live with those who suffer from trauma.
*This is an excerpt from Victoria Newman's book, A CHiP on my Shoulder--How to Love and Support Your Cop