First Responder Grief During the Holidays

A police officer returns to his patrol vehicle

This article is courtesy of Patrick McCurdy, Retired Sergeant/Deputy.

“I sat with my anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief.”
C.S. Lewis

It was Christmas Eve.

We were looking for a domestic violence assault suspect. It was a pretty bad assault, and we were determined to find him.

Everyone inside of the house said that he had run away, but there were no tracks in the fresh snow, and a K9 confirmed that there was no scent trail. We knew that he was hiding somewhere inside that garbage and hazard strewn home.

I got to be the guy who climbed into the attic to crouch and try to walk through the dank and dark place that was full of many years accumulation of thick cobwebs.

I didn’t consider the lack of wisdom in sending the biggest guy into the smallest space.

I found him, hidden underneath a pile of that messy blown-in insulation, that is probably laden with asbestos and other carcinogens. After wrestling him into cuffs and then handing him through the small opening to the Deputies below, I went back up to see if he left anything behind, or if there were any other suspects hiding up there.

Tempting fate only once was not enough.  I felt confident … until I fell through the sheetrock.

Luckily, I caught myself with my arms on the rafters. My partners were laughing hysterically and wouldn’t help me down until they took a few polaroid photos to use many years later at my retirement.

I wasn’t hurt, and that became one of many stories that we would laugh about for years to come. Stories about one of the guys who broadcast a pursuit with Santa’s sleigh, and patrol cars that we forgot to put in park and then chased down the icy street, comments by prostitutes and lots of others.

What we never talked about was the sense of loss that some of us were suffering through. One of our good friends and partners was killed just before Christmas. And we experienced 6 line of duty deaths in one year between Halloween and Thanksgiving. It seems during that time of year, we respond to more fatal accidents and unnecessary deaths than any other time of year.

For the general public that we serve, the memories of loved ones lost can be difficult enough during the holidays, but for first responders, our losses of friends and loved ones are compounded by memories of suicides, violence, fires and tragedies.

As first responders, we also often work long, lonely shifts in the middle of the night. Our stresses and worries are made worse by our lack of sleep and the extreme stress that we endure.

Alcohol consumption and drug use increase during the holiday seasons too, as people and first responders use these things as unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Suicide statistics have grown exponentially over the last few years. Suicides for nurses, emergency dispatchers, corrections officers have steadily increased. Police Officer and Firefighter suicides have exploded. In 2016, the number of Police suicides were far higher than the number of line-of-duty deaths.  In 2009, the same was true for firefighters. Police Officers are consistently in the top ten professions for suicide in the United States, and it appears that the statistics from the last two years may make Law Enforcement the number one worst job in the nation for suicide deaths. To add to this grief, the number of retired first responders that are committing suicide are growing as well. It saddens me deeply to think that the people that I care so much about don’t feel that they have any other options and turn to an irreversible and far reaching decision that will negatively impact their family and friends for years to come.

Just know, my brothers and sisters in service, that I’ve been there and I understand. I know it can be really, really hard. I know that you feel alone in all of this, and like I did, you feel like you don’t want to burden others with your troubles. You feel like others have circumstances that are far worse than yours, and yours aren’t worth talking about when others need help way more than you do.

I know, that like me, you’re trying to fix yourself in a patrol car in a dark alley in the middle of the night.  It’s private there, and no one will know.

Or maybe all of those extra shifts at the firestation will keep your mind occupied so that you don’t have to think about your wife and kids that you’ve been separated from celebrating somewhere else without you.

Grief, Depression, extreme anxiety and acute stress are big, all consuming threats to all of us. They are a 4 alarm fire, or a big bar fight of a problem.

I hope that you wouldn’t try to handle the big fire or the big fight alone. Post Traumatic Stress is too big to fight on our own too. It is literally a fight for your life that can consume you.

While you feel like you’re the only one that is suffering through something like this, you are not. The statistics don’t lie, and they don’t paint a very pretty picture.

blogphoto4 First Responder Grief During the Holidays

blogphoto3 First Responder Grief During the Holidays

Please, call for backup. Call me anytime. Call a friend that you trust and haven’t spoken to for a while.

Even better, call a trained therapist or clinician. They have new techniques like EMDR and Brain Spotting that can help people like us to experience miraculous breakthroughs.

Don’t sit alone in your grief. That is how the enemy, the darkness that you’re confronting, can overwhelm and suffocate you. The darkness has a lot less power if you expose it to the light and talk with friends about it. These choke-holds only have power if they’re fed and hidden in the darkness. In the light, our fears tend to wither and fade.

Tools to Help You to Combat Holiday Grief

Enlist Help

After the holiday season, a lot of us will start working hard to shed the holiday weight that we gained. This requires a lot of commitment and hard work. You have to sweat and make sacrifices. Though it’s hard work, it’s easy to come up with a game plan, because we’ve fought that fight before.

Shedding your grief, sorrow, depression and anxiety can also be done with hard work, support and a game plan.

Both are better with support and the help of specialists.

If we truly want to be more effective in losing the unnecessary weight, we all know that enlisting the friend or a trainer or friend can help to motivate us.

The same is true for combating depression or grief and shedding that emotional weight. If we call a friend, the fight is easier if we aren’t in it alone. A therapist, just like a trainer, can help us to be more effective and can direct our efforts.

Get a Pet

There’s a reason that Equine Therapy, and Canine Therapy works. Animals love us unconditionally.

Here are some reasons borrowed form lists made by others that a dog (or other pet) can change your outlook and help you through a tough spot:

  • They know when you’re sad and need comforting.
  • Caring for them can give you a sense of purpose.
  • They are ever-loyal companions.
  • They’re always excited to see us, even if you’ve only been gone a few minutes.
  • They appreciate public displays of affection.
  • They like to wrestle and rough-house.
  • They don’t get jealous if you rough house with other dogs.
  • Dogs love to sleep in.
  • Dogs love large quantities of meat.
  • Dogs know that farts are funny.

What more could you want?!


Journaling, especially gratitude journaling, can help you to change your perspective and see things in a better light. You can literally learn to reprogram negative thinking.

To start a gratitude journal, simply list three things every day that you are grateful for. When you are depressed, this can be a lot harder than it seems. Even if you list things like, “I’m grateful that I woke up this morning.”, “I’m grateful that I don’t have to work today”, etc. it will start to make you focus on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative. After a while, your gratitude begins to flow more easily and you can start again to see beauty in the little things, like the hummingbird perched outside of your window, or the beauty and intricacy of a small flower. It works.

Avoid Bad Coping Mechanisms

Why do we turn to alcohol? Gambling? Prescription drugs? Porn? Video Games?

Because they work. The substances, or adrenaline rushes feel good for a little while and they help us to feel numb, which is better than feeling pain and revisiting tough memories.

After a while, though, those things stop working, so we need more.

And more.

And then they stop working, and we’re stuck with an addiction that doesn’t go away on its own.

The same endorphins, dopamine and feel-good chemicals that are released with those activities are also released with vigorous exercise, spiritual worship and with meaningful relationships.

Start walking. Put on your warm cap and coat and walk until you break a sweat. Walking can be a welcome distraction, and it can give you things to be grateful for and to list in your gratitude journal.

You can bring your dog with you, walking in any type of weather.

Waling can provide a good opportunity to talk with your spouse or a friend. This is, of course, better in person, but can also be done on the phone while you walk.

Walking, hiking or rucking can be a short period of respite and solitude. Sometimes it’s even better with a friend. Walking with a dog can’t be beat! They actually require very little and are just thrilled to spend time with you.

You don’t even have to have a plan, or a destination. You can simply leave your house and walk around the block, or to the park and back.

Avoid Big Crowds, But Enjoy Small Gatherings

Big crowds full of drunk obnoxious people make anxiety worse. Avoid bars, malls and crowds.

Set up your own small gathering with a small group of people that you trust and can laugh with.

I somehow convinced myself that I am an introvert and do better when I’m not around people.

That’s actually called isolating, and I have mastered that skill.

I know that many of you have become quite adept at isolation as well.

It’s really hard, but you will never regret picking up that 100lb phone to make that oddly difficult call.  Being with friends is actually not bad at all, when you finally do it. Pick a comfortable spot, like a barbeque on your deck, or a restaurant where you can stay and keep talking for a long time.

Remember, call for backup. These things are bigger than just you. You may actually help someone else who is as good at masking their grief as you are. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for them. They’ll always remember that, and they’ll probably feel pretty special that the quiet guy who never hangs out after work actually called them.

They may also feel comfortable calling you when they are trying to work something difficult out.


Be this guy!

holiday1 First Responder Grief During the Holidays

I know the excuses that you’re going to put up. . .

I work nights, I need to sleep during the day….

I’m working a lot of overtime shifts lately… (Another bad coping mechanism)

It’s just me, so it doesn’t make sense….

It’s too much work to put up for a month and then take down and put away again….

It’s too cold out…

Sorry.  Those are just excuses that you use to let you not feel and stay numb.  Any creative process can help to shake some of the depression off.  The hardest part is not doing it, it’s getting started.

If you decide not to decorate, try revisiting some of the things that you used to enjoy doing but have abandoned and let slip away gradually over the years.  Take that old road bike out and dust it off to take it for a spin.  Pull out your woodworking or leather work projects that you’ve been meaning to finish.  Pick up one of the books on your nightstand and read a few chapters.  Call your golf or fishing buddies.  Go to the cabin that you haven’t been to in a year… or two or three and do some of the repairs you’ve been meaning to check off of your list.  Spend some time there.  Bring your friend(s) and your dog…

It used to be that we worked to make money to do the things that we enjoy doing.  It also used to be that we enjoyed going to work.  It’s interesting but sad how those things tend to reverse themselves when we are overcome by grief, depression, or Post Traumatic Stress.

We begin working more hours at the job that we are no longer enjoying, for the boss that we don’t trust and can’t stand instead of taking some time off to do things we love doing with people that we like.  We sign up for more overtime shifts so that we can feel alive when the adrenaline surges and so we can be busy, and numb, and not have to think about the difficult things that we’ve packaged away and compartmentalized.

When I say it like that, it really doesn’t make much sense, does it?  Acute Trauma and Stress can distort our perception.  This is another reason that enlisting the help of others can help us.  It can reframe our perspective and help us to see what we’re missing.

Get Involved in Charitable Events

Volunteer at a food bank.

Spend a few days helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity.  The hard work, comradery and the feeling of doing something good is nourishing to your soul.

Help with Fill the Boot or Toys for Tots campaigns.  Ask the Captain if you can be the person who delivers the goods to the kids.  Blast the horn on your truck for them when you pull up.  It’s even better if your Captain is standing in front of the rig when you do it.  It’s for the kids, right?

holiday2 First Responder Grief During the Holidays

Actually go to the annual “Shop with a Cop” event and don’t avoid it this year with lame excuses like, “I need to sleep for graveyard shift.”  You spent the last four days that you should’ve been sleeping up drinking Monster energy drinks and playing Call of Duty, dominating a bunch of 12 year olds.  Don’t make excuses.  Go help some 12 year olds that really need it, and actually appreciate it.  They’ll never forget the cool cop they got to shop with.  Maybe if you’re lucky, that 12 year old that you buy gifts for will later link up with you and you can let them dominate on Call of Duty.  They can brag to all of their friends that they beat a cop.

Start Something Bigger than You

Fairly early in my career, as a young police officer, I came across a single mom who had left her abusive, drug addicted husband.  She was staying in a really bad hotel with her three kids, and was trying to heat the room with the oven left open.  I gathered some money from my squad and a few firefighters to buy some toys and wrap them as gifts for her kids.  Their reception was something that I’ll never forget.  The kids were so excited and grateful.  Those kids, despite their difficult circumstances grew up to be very good people, and always showed respect for police officers, teachers and authority figures.

My project grew quickly.  The next year, I asked the teachers at the grade school for a list of students that might need some help.  I went to Safeway and told the manager what I was doing.  He, and several store employees led me through the store pushing a couple of carts.  As we walked, he called the guy from the bakery and said, “Grab all of the bread that will be rotated out!”

He yelled to the butcher, “Let’s start the turkey sale a few hours early!  Mark down all of the turkeys!”

By the time we finished, I crammed three packed carts of good food and groceries into the back of my patrol car.  With all of the help the bill was only $180.00.

When I went to the fire station to sort the items into bags for each family, the firefighters all were excited to jump in and help.  The Fire Chief heard what we were doing, and grabbed the left over toys from the Toys for Tots drive.  He also brought an envelope to me and said, “Patrick, we have an emergency relief fund that we use to help families in need.  We want to help.  We don’t have much, but I want to give it to you to help pay for the groceries.”

You’ll never believe this.  God undeniably had a hand in this.

I refused at first, but when he finally convinced me, there was exactly $180 in the envelope.

Even now, my eyes fill up with happy tears thinking about it.

That project grew over the years.  My wife’s father would dress up in his Santa Costume and help.  We brought her dad and my parents to join in the fun.  My mom knit slippers to keep the little kids’ feet warm.  More and more police officers and firefighters joined in on the fun.

Eventually when I began teaching at the police academy, I transferred the tradition to my recruits, and it grew even bigger.  They started a huge giving tree and would bring the kids and their families to the academy auditorium where the cafeteria staff would prepare a meal, and a cake and the kids all got gifts from a very grumpy Santa, my father-in-law.

A very small and clumsy attempt to help one family grew into something great that lasted several years.  The joy was contagious.  The young officers and firefighters were infected by the service-bug, and many brought that enthusiasm and similar projects to their home agencies.

And for a little while,

The holidays didn’t really seem all that bad.

Trauma Stress Grief and Suicide

This is a big, nasty looming threat.  We are losing too many good brothers and sisters.  We care about you, and we want to keep you around.  You can’t fight this fight alone.  There are plenty of us waiting and willing to join in and pull you out.

If you need help, or a referral to services that can help, just pick up that phone.  All you need is 30 seconds of courage.  It can literally save your life.

If you don’t feel that you have anyone else, you can always call me.  I’m here.  I’m willing to help.  You are important to me.

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

The First Responders Treatment Program uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers. Existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially tricky. If you or someone you love is struggling, call us now at 888-443-4898

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