First-Hand Advice on Surviving a Colleague’s Suicide

September 11, 2019

Editor’s note: Sept. 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day. In recognition of this critical issue and its broad impact on law enforcement, we share these five hard-earned tips for helping navigate the painful and complex aftermath of an officer suicide. Calibre Press will soon be announcing a nationwide program designed to practically and powerfully support law enforcement suicide prevention efforts. Additional details will be announced here soon.

Law enforcement is a tight-knit group, largely because of the unique, sometimes difficult experiences we share. These bind us together and inspire strong comradery and the development of a support system that becomes critical when bad things happen. As a former employee put it, “We’re family.”

But what happens when one of our own takes his life? What happens when one of our family dies at their own hand? Those same ties that bind and strengthen can make the situation all the more painful and difficult to deal with.

Having personally been in that situation, I can tell you that there is no one “right” way to handle it, but there are many “wrong” ways. Speaking as both someone who lost a colleague to suicide, and as a supervisor who had to take care of my employees in the aftermath of that incident, I can tell you there is no perfect approach.

What I can share are the lessons I learned as a result of my experience. Here are some suggestions:

1. Allow your staff to grieve and to vent. Psychologists have known for a long time that internalizing tumultuous emotions can have long-term negative effects on people’s mental and physical health. Many work cultures place heavy emphasis on stoicism, which prevents this venting from taking place because it’s seen as “unprofessional.” This is one of those times that an exception needs to be made. Let your staff vent.

2. Have resources available. A lot of the same organizations that emphasize stoicism in the office also lack the kinds of resources and counseling services needed in these kinds of situations. Make help available and allow your staff to use it.

3. Don’t short-circuit the process and don’t personalize it. In my case, my department’s leadership tried to shut down the debriefing and counseling sessions when they learned that some of the participants used them to vent about leadership and how they may or may not have contributed to the situation. First of all, the debriefing and counseling sessions are supposed to be confidential, so what was said should never have been leaked out. Second, even if leadership was criticized, it was necessary to express those feelings as part of the grieving process. Be an adult and stay away when your staff has these sessions.

4. Set the good example. In my case, I let my employees know that I would be participating in the debriefing sessions and I was the first one in line when the sessions started. If you want your people to be comfortable with participating, you will have to participate yourself.

5. Recognize that others feel it, too. In my particular case, my colleague had a new wife and an infant daughter. He also had a former wife and three young children from his first marriage. The new wife was a dispatcher and her co-workers from our dispatch center were also impacted by what happened. Don’t forget about these other people and make sure they are taken care of as well.

Ultimately, the best advice I can offer is to get help. If you or a colleague are in this situation, there are resources and options available. Please use them.

For more on this subject:

A Crisis in Law Enforcement: Suicide

When Grief Calls: Supporting Your Brothers & Sisters in Blue

4 Tips for Fighting Suicide

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