Being in relationship or married to a police officer makes you the first line of support. When spouses accept this role they know it comes with some sacrifices, but what they often don't realize is their well-being may not be considered by friends, family members, or even the agency.
The Year 2015 was a difficult one for police officers around Edmonton, Alberta, Canada—a provincial capital city with a regional population of close to one million people. Early in the morning on January 17 Constable David Wynn with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was shot in a casino while responding to a stolen vehicle call in St. Albert, a community which borders Edmonton. A few days later his family said good-bye as he was taken off life support.
My husband had been with the Edmonton Police Service for eight years and this was the first line-of-duty death in our area since he joined—the first time he donned his dress blue uniform and marched in the procession for a regimental funeral.
I anticipated the emotional challenge of watching a wife who spoke to her husband for the last time when he left for work that day and seeing his kids—including a son the same age as our son—sitting in front of a casket facing the reality of never seeing their dad again.
It was too much for me to bear—I decided to watch the procession then drive home to watch the livestream of the funeral. The procession filled me with a sense of pride and sorrow. It was awesome to see so many police officers come together, and the public line the route to show their support.
This was the first time I really felt a part of the bigger police family. Constable Wynn's death was the first time I faced the reality of the danger associated to police work, but there was still some distance because it was not our agency that lost a member.
After my husband joined the police service people would ask if I felt stressed when he went to work. The last Edmonton Police Service officer to die in the line of duty was Constable Ezio Faraone on June 25, 1990. When I felt worried or stressed while he was working I used the statistic that every one of our members had come home for over 20 years.
On June 8, 2015 my husband had come home from his shift. We were sitting on the couch watching television and I got a text message from a friend asking, "Is he okay?"
Obviously the friend was asking for a reason, but we didn't know why. Within minutes, both of our phones were "blowing up" with messages.
Two officers from his agency had been shot. One died on scene and the other was in the hospital. Soon thereafter we found out the officer killed was Constable Dan Woodall, but the official notification from the agency came long after we had received most of the information through text messages and social media posts.
The evening was spent sitting in shock, and answering messages from friends and family members. I was not on the social media page for the police wives group, but heard Dan's wife replied to the post about the event to express her condolences to the family.
The other wives were mortified because they already knew it was her husband. His wife didn't know because the official notification hadn't been made yet.
Watching my husband walk out the door the next morning felt like being hit with a ton of bricks.
The tears didn't start until after he left, but it was in that moment that I realized the statistic of everyone coming home safe for over 20 years no longer applied. I had lost the mental safety net I had used for seven years to calm myself when I felt stress about his job. I felt completely alone and helpless. I reached out to the few other police spouses I knew, and reconnected with the wives group.
The days that followed were a blur of hanging blue ribbons around the city, while trying to maintain a work schedule. Calls and messages received from friends and family all said, “How is your husband doing?” While I understood the concern for his well-being, I wondered why no one asked about me. Officers are surrounded by people who are dealing with similar feelings, while the spouses are at home or work around people who do not understand the impact of watching someone else live their worst nightmare.
The emotions experienced after the line-of-duty death of an officer in my agency were a complete shock. The feelings of fear and sadness are met with guilt because logically you should be grateful that your husband came home. Everyone focusing on your spouse and not asking about you confirms the guilt and sense that it is wrong and selfish to be thinking about yourself during this time.
The wives group arranged a meeting to get information about the regimental funeral. There were a lot of tears shed in that room as we all tried to deal with the loss, and our own feelings, in the presence of the only people who understood what we were experiencing. During the meeting there was mention of the family assistance program and how to access counseling. I chose not to use the services of a professional but there were a number of wives who did utilize the service to talk to a psychologist.
Days later was the second regimental funeral in only six months. Attendance to the ceremony was limited to those in the procession, invited dignitaries, and members of the wives group. The wives gathered in a specified location, not far from Dan's family, to watch the procession. This time I decided to attend because this was our agency and family. Once the funeral was over it was time to resume our lives.
A short time later my husband was partnered with a female officer. During their shift she mentioned her husband had tried multiple times to get in to the funeral. He was denied access because he was not a member of the wives group. The exclusivity of the wives group had been questioned by members, but the leadership have refused to open the group up to all spouses. If the female spouses felt alone in the wake of Dan's death, how did the male spouses feel? They have no support even though they face the same challenges.
Searching the internet to find resources for police spouses did not produce very many results. A google search for “police spouse support” provided pages of results on how to be a good police wife, and a link to the IACP family resource blog. The first three results on a search for “police wife resilience” are articles on how police officers can increase resilience. Conducting a search in a university library database produced one study titled The Phenomenological Experience of First Responder Spouses1, a qualitative study of six spouses of first responders. A single study with only six participants is a clear sign that more needs to be done to understand the experience and needs of first responder spouses. The resources need to be developed and made available to assist them throughout their spouse's career, including times of additional stress and tragedy.
It is understandable to focus on the family of the officer who died in the line of duty, but it wasn't until I experienced it that I realized there is no talk about the experience of the other spouses. Even then it took me two years before I had the courage to begin writing and talking about my experience. I still felt guilty for thinking about myself. I contacted Dan's widow and a few other police widows to ask how they would feel if I wrote an article about the effects of the line-of-duty death on the other spouses. They were all very supportive of the idea.
An article I wrote on this topic was published in Canada just after the tragic loss of Constable John Davidson with the Abbotsford Police Department in British Columbia, Canada on November 6, 2017. A number of spouses contacted me, thanking me for writing the article because it made them realize they were not alone and what they were experiencing was normal. A news media article published shortly after Cst. Davidson's death titled, The Other Side: Life as the Spouse of Police Officer, stated spouses of officers experience fear, then proceeded to advise spouses how to prepare in the event of their spouse's untimely death2. The emails and the insensitivity of the news article confirm more needs to be done to raise awareness about the trauma and to ensure spouses do not feel isolated and selfish for struggling even though their partner came home.
The increased focus on mental health needs to extend to the spouses. The family is the front line of support for first responders.
According to the statistics the percentage of female officers is 21% in Canada3, 29% in England and Wales4, and 12.5% in the United States5. Even though they are a minority, there are no books or groups for male spouses. Male spouses have always been a minority, but as the number of female officers continues to increase are leaders going to start considering the needs of this group? At the very least can we do more to ensure a husband isn't standing outside an officer funeral trying to get in? The IACP blog titled Five Ways to Support Those Who Support Law Enforcement includes a recommendation to make the group inclusive even though the wives access the resources the most6.
The first recommendation in the IACP blog is to start early6. The wives group is a valuable resource which became vital after a line-of-duty death. The membership to the wives group doubled in the days following Dan's death. Although this is when the importance of the group was clearly evident, do not wait until there is a traumatic event. That is not the time to try and form a group, or set up a social media page. Developing a formal group requires time and resources, and these are not available during the aftermath of an event.
Language is important. It is common to call them support groups, but the definition of a support group is people with problems in common attending regular meetings led by a professional who does not have the same issues6. Although one function of a spouses group is support, the spouses group is an opportunity to get to know other people in a similar situation. The group should function like a club where people with a similar interest come together. People are reluctant to join if it is called a support group because it gives the impression they have problems. Being in a relationship or married to a police officer does not mean support is needed. It is comforting to meet other people in the same situation and in the event of a tragedy those relationships become a lifeline.
“Family members of police employees are routinely out of sight, out of mind when it comes to organizational support efforts. Yet weakened family systems means weakened police employee resilience.”8 Mental health supports need to be made available in various forms for law enforcement and extended to include their family members. Resources range from peer support to professional psychologists who are qualified to work with first responders. The police service chaplain was immensely helpful. He served an integral role assisting Dan's widow, speaking at the wives group meeting, and being available for members. Police agencies need to implement a spectrum of services for members and their spouses.
A line-of-duty death throws the entire community into a crisis. The closer people are to the event and the deceased, the more they're emotionally impacted. The focus has naturally been on police officers, coming together to deal with the tragic loss of a brother or sister in blue. Meanwhile, spouses are witnessing someone live their worst nightmare, often suffering in silence while trying to provide support to their spouse. Let's work toward reducing the isolation and mental anguish experienced by many spouses by setting up a support system which includes a spouses group, peer support, and access to qualified psychologists before the agency is in a state of crisis.
1 Porter, K. L., & Henriksen, R. C. 2016. The Phenomenological Experience of First Responder Spouses. Family Journal, 24(1), 44.
2 Hennig, Clare. 2017. "The Other Side: Life As The Spouse Of Police Officer". CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/melissa-littles-on-life-as-spouse-of-police-officer-1.4392404.
3 "Police Officers by Rank and Gender, Canada, Provinces And Territories". 2018. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3510007801.
4 Hargreaves, Jodie, Hannah Husband, and Chris Linehan. 2017. "Police Workforce, England And Wales, 31 March 2017". Assets.Publishing.Service.Gov.Uk. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/630471/hosb1017-police-workforce.pdf.
5 Gender. 2018. "Gender Distribution Of Full-Time U.S. Law Enforcement Employees 2017 | Statistic". Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/195324/gender-distribution-of-full-time-law-enforcement-employees-in-the-us/.
6 Ehrlich, Jacqueline. 2017. "Five Ways To Support Those Who Support Law Enforcement". International Association Of Chiefs Of Police. https://www.theiacp.org/news/blog-post/five-ways-to-support-those-who-support-law-enforcement.
7 Nugent, Pam M.S. 2013. "Support Group". Psychology Dictionary. https://psychologydictionary.org/support-group/.
8 Conn, Stephanie M. 2018. Increasing Resilience In Police And Emergency Personnel. New York: Routledge.