The Goodness of Grief: Humanizing My Uniform with Vulnerability

I am a grandson, son, brother, fiancé, dog dad, horse enthusiast, mental health advocate, professor and police officer.

My police training started with a family of coaches and mentors. When you start your career, aligning yourself with mentors and coaches who share the values you do makes the undesirable parts of the job doable. These are the people who keep my feet grounded and my head on straight. They are the same people who look out for me, challenge me, and force me to grow.

Wearing a uniform is much like living a separate life. Like many of my colleagues, your identity becomes “the cop” as soon as you put it on. On duty and off duty, it was like being re-branded with a new expectation. Less emotion and more grit. Problem solver and situation handler: the jack-of-all-trades, master of none. The “cool story teller” and brunt of “interesting” dinner banter. Curiously, when strangers asked what I did for work, if I responded with “accounting” I was less likely to hear “Tell us the craziest thing you’ve seen” or “Would you shoot someone?”

On duty, there was policy, public expectation, law, and internal police etiquette/culture that dictated how we would interact with victims, the grieving, the struggling, or those in crisis. In my opinion, it created consistent, streamlined approaches to managing policing in an effort to ensure a basic standard was always being accounted for. As a trade-off, sometimes, it made it harder to have the emotional connection, or be “relatable” to the clients we served. We were somewhat becoming “responding shells.” Truthfully, I think it helped preserve our own well-being. The highs and lows of every call out were very real.

After some incidents at work that re-shaped how I respond to stress, grief and emotion, “I’m having a bad day” wasn’t a viable excuse anymore.

There was less training that covered the unspoken responsibility to show up. Showing up with the emotional intelligence, the insight and the ability to look inwards when you were mentally and emotionally absent from work. The classic “foggy” or “crappy days” we all have. When you showed up with the uniform but without the mindfulness or wherewithal to understand you weren’t your best self. I was having trouble drawing the nexus with why I got into policing, and what I was actually doing to maintain those values.

In January of 2018, I started to volunteer with Dr. Jay’s Grief Group. A group for children and youth who experienced a traumatic loss, or who were navigating grief and losing someone really close. A close friend identified some of my values and aligned me with Dr. Jay’s Grief Group. I wanted to put some of my values, experience and outlook to use.

I joined a panel called “Ask the Expert” even though I really wasn’t a seasoned veteran. The “expert” title wasn’t so relatable, but grief was. I joined a paediatrics medical doctor and sat down with a room full of youth. The youth wanted one thing: to ask all the questions nobody was answering. We allowed the children and youth to ask us any questions they had about life, death, policing, drugs, safe sex, consent, investigations and everything in between. My job: be the young, relatable cop and keep things fun and engaging.

I had no idea what to expect for my first Grief Circle. Before the circle, I was approached by a young lady whose brother was killed by gang violence. I was dressed in my police uniform and she walked up to me and said, “I have nothing to say to you, you guys didn’t help me, my family or my brother.” She was pissed I was there and I was caught off guard.

She was talking to the uniform and yet, I couldn’t help but feel responsible for some of what I was representing and how she was feeling. Here was a young lady whose brother was killed in a shooting related to gang violence. She had no answers, and didn’t understand why her brother’s killer was at large. This was an unsolved homicide that I, let alone the experts, had no answers for. Prior to this, I had never heard of the file or even the death. I was completely naive.

Our group started with introductions. I managed to get through all the fun parts of my bio like teaching and working as a frontline patrol officer. Then I hit a roadblock. I was asked, “What experience do you have with grief, and why are you here?” Honest question. I wished I thought to ask it myself before I opened my mouth.

Game on: the kids wanted answers. I was the outlier in the group. These kids had already worked together for weeks and knew each other’s stories. I started sharing about my experience losing my ‘person’, before stumbling into my experience with grief as a police officer. I shared the two calls that changed me as a person and an officer.

I got emotional. I cried in front of a group of kids and professionals who all expected the cop to show up. Not the blubbering mess. I made it through my bio, and managed to look up and notice there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I wanted to walk out and call on my support team.

All I could think was, 1) Josh, fix your sh*t, 2) You’re a human, 3) make an appointment with your support team, 4) Be real, you got this, 5) Breathe, game on.

Dr. Jo and I made it through all the questions. The open forum, the safe space we were in, enabled us to answer a lot of really brave and inquisitive questions. We humanized our roles and supported a group of really strong kids. There were some cool connections. For the first time EVER in a job, I had an “ah ha” moment. My experience wasn’t the fact I was a seasoned 40-year officer, who looked like he had tested every donut running. My experience was the fact I was young, current, relatable and within reach to these kids. I was in that seat because I’m okay getting vulnerable, getting emotional and trying to be brave.

Selfishly, I realized how much I was helping myself with my new identity as a police officer, humanizing my uniform and hopefully making my vulnerability accessible to at least one person.

Following the session, we debriefed and discussed the maiden “Ask the Expert Session.” In the corner was the girl who was grieving the loss of her brother. I was about to leave and she ran after me. She approached me, “the cop.” The police officer and the profession she despised so much. She held her hand out and shook my hand. “Thanks for being real with us, I didn’t like you guys, but you’re kind of cool.” The grieving girl who’s being brave and vulnerable with me again. Shocked, stunned, and on the brink of being another blubbering mess, I managed to thank her for being brave, because she let me be vulnerable with her and her peers.

Following this session, I started teaching college level police foundations. Not because I’m the most experienced or qualified person, but because I am passionate about sharing a human approach to my uniform and, hopefully, encouraging even one person to enter this noble profession with their values, integrity, and emotional intelligence. I think I have the world’s best job. My goal, now, is to make sure I don’t miss the mark, and to maximize the values and reasons I signed up.

We’ve since incorporated this “Ask the Expert Session” with various age groups, including my first ever “Camp” experience joining these kids at a Grief Camp, and expanding on our expert sessions to reach as many youths navigating grief as we can.

Grief appears in all stages of life. First responders are exposed to grief whether they ask for it or not. My only goal with this is to remind, even one person, of the value when we invest in ourselves. To understand the return when we work on our emotional intelligence, the benefit of insight and the value of connecting. These positive interactions are happening daily, the “ah-ha!” moments are so frequent. I share this to hold myself accountable to keep having them and doing the best job I can.

I share this because I admire the work that groups like Dr. Jay’s Grief Group does for kids, and what organizations like Badge of Life Canada (BOLC) do for first responders. I’m fortunate that as a professional and adult, there are friends and resources that exist like Badge of Life. There are resources. There’s no shame and, as my friends at BOLC say, there is strength in numbers. We are capable of working at the highest calibre. I’m fortunate to have my tribe of people.

This is why I police.