Part 1: Coping with grief from the loss of a fellow HPD officer

The month of May can be a hard month for those of us in the police community as May signals local, state and national Police Week activities, which serve to honor officers who have died in the line of duty.

This year was no different for HPD as Police Week commenced, with the exception that we were honoring five officers lost in the line of duty from December 2019-December 2020. The five officers honored were Sgt. Christopher Brewster, Officer Jason Knox, Sgt. Harold Preston, Sgt Sean Rios and Officer Ernest Leal.

Police Week activities are designed to give us all the chance to honor newly fallen officers as well as remember those previously lost. It is a week of tradition and ceremony and provides another avenue of healing for the families as well as the department.

I was the psychologist on-call the day Sgt. Preston was killed. It was a day full of shock, outrage and grief…just to name a few of the emotions swirling past me from all directions.

I spent time at the scene talking to officers doing their best to keep it together. I spent time at Memorial Hermann where I talked with family members in their time of grief. My day ended at the Southwest station, where we talked in a large group setting with the many officers who were able to attend.

The loss of all five of these officers was far-reaching and immeasurable, not only for their families but for the officers, who knew these men, worked alongside them and were friends.

We often spend more time with co-workers than with our own families and thus the impact of losing a co-worker and friend are far reaching whether the loss is line of duty related or from illness, unexpected events or accidents.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talks extensively about the five Stages of Grief in her numerous writings on the subject. She defines the stages as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

When working with clients, I often characterize grief as an ocean with waves. The waves can be calm in stretches and then suddenly overwhelm you as they crash upon you.

Further, I often hear the phrase “get over his/her death” as if getting over or forgetting the death of someone we loved is the path to acceptance. It feels like there is a timeline. I find that I disagree with this sentiment.

Acceptance is coming to the place where I can think about the person I lost with a smile, or gratitude or even sadness while simultaneously acknowledging the indelible mark they left upon my life…as my life moves forward without them.

Think about it like a wound. The death of my loved one is like an open wound on my body. With time and care, it does eventually heal but there is a scar. A mark, which forever stays with me as a reminder of the deep wound I experienced. I do not “get over it” and forget but the scar, ever a reminder, does not interfere with me moving forward and living my life.

Grief can be hard to talk about. Even harder to talk about when it is a co-worker or friend who was lost because it somehow feels less justified. It often feels as if the world is moving on and not taking time to remember how special this person was to the workplace. We want to be a people who remember our loved ones well.

I want to spend more time on this subject because in my experience, our culture does not teach us how to grieve well and as a whole, police officers especially, struggle with grief. However, I also know that no one reads a long-winded writer…so my plan is for a Part 2.

If you cannot wait until then for strategies/guidance and need some immediate help with your grief, call Psychological Services at 832-394-1440. We are always willing to listen and ride the waves with you.