Pongo Project Journal

Sharing stories of our work with teens
Jun 17

As cops with 70 years of service between them, Pete and Don know who they are. They can joke about needing to sit in the last row at the conference, with their backs to the wall, as they check out the other participants. They can express how hard it is to trust anyone who isn’t a cop.

I met Pete and Don at a conference on treating survivors after a sudden, violent death. The conference site was a Christian retreat center in Memphis.

Pete and Don know who they are in another way, a profound way. They know that repeated exposure in their careers to traumas of violence and death has been very damaging to them and to their fellow officers. They know that some of the values of their officer community, including stoic silence, have contributed to the hurt. Pete and Don want to help their brother and sister cops, and they know that as members of the police subculture they are in the best position to do that.

And another thing that Pete and Don know, and share, is that their own inability to process trauma brought them to terrible low points in their lives. To give me context, they talked about the fact that every 55 hours one cop is killed and three commit suicide. They talked about the fact that officer suicide rates are comparable to those of Marines. They said that police have twice the national average of divorce. They said that police officers suffer diseases of adaptation, such as diabetes, digestive illnesses, and skin disorders. They said that 30% of cops have diagnosable PTSD.

Pete and Don say that the need to contain feelings leaves cops frustrated and angry – an anger that masks sorrow, guilt, and vulnerability. Cops can become cold, “a talking uniform,” or hyper-vigilant. Naturally, there is a price that officers’ families pay. Pete tells a story of an officer’s wife who was overheard telling her son, “Now don’t make any sudden moves or loud noises when your father gets home.”

As survivors of this emotional pain, Pete and Don describe themselves as being among “the fortunate few.” And Pete says, “I fell in the sewer and came out a plumber.”

Pete told me the story of a cop who was called to the SIDS death of an infant – an infant that was the same age as the officer's own child. The officer tried unsuccessfully to revive the baby and later accompanied the ambulance with the body to the hospital. Then, immediately afterward, the officer had to contain his grief to deal with a false alarm and an irate homeowner.

Don, who was a federal marshal, could talk about responding to the shooting at Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and September 11. About Oklahoma City he says, “It damn near destroyed me.”

Pete and Don are cops with 70 years of service between them. They have learned to value emotions, including tears, to deal with traumatic death. They have the exceptional goal to share this knowledge with their brother and sister officers.

Peter Cove, formerly of South Boston, is training director at Tennessee Public Safety Network, which supports officers after a critical incident. Donald Benson is Assistant Chief of Internal Affairs and Training in the Blount County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville, Tennessee.

Jun 08

Writing and poetry can help people heal from traumatic grief, which is the difficult grief one experiences after a sudden, violent death. “Restorative Retelling” is a therapy developed by my friend and Pongo colleague Dr. Ted Rynearson, Director of the Violent Death Bereavement Society. In a few days I am speaking at a “Restorative Retelling” conference in Memphis. Dr. Rynearson and I collaborated on several projects that produced the Pongo books "I Lost My Sense of Protection" and "I Can't Imagine Myself Any Other Place."

Today’s blog is about Thea (a pseudonym), a young widow who has used writing to deal with grief and isolation, but also to record moments of surprising and transcendent joy. Writing, and especially poetry, has been a discovery for Thea at this time. In Pongo’s first guest blog, I have included a poem and essay by Thea, who lost her husband in an accident in 2007.

Here is Thea’s poem…

Empty Space
by Thea 

Alone at the cabin
peering into
the closet
looks strange
the empty space
where his clothes
had lived.

So suddenly
he departed
I was left
an aching void
that pulsated
a primal agony.

The passage
of time
builds strength -
does heal.

Now the space
within me
is sometimes
when I dance
it whirls

And here is Thea’s essay…

“Writing has been part of my journey of healing since I lost my husband in an accident three years ago.  A former colleague of mine suggested that I start keeping a journal.  Her sister had been widowed young and journal-writing had helped her maintain her sanity.  On a couple of occasions I have felt inspired to write poetry to capture some of the moments of peace and insight that I have experienced.

“Although I haven’t maintained a daily journal writing practice, writing in my journal has been a wonderful way to record my thoughts, feelings, experiences in a way that honors both the unique and universal experiences of the bereavement/grief process.  I usually find the experience cathartic.  I write in my journal when I have intense thoughts or feelings that need to be expressed and/or recorded on paper in order to release them.  Sometimes I simply write when I have extra time; for instance, a popular time for writing is on a ferry ride.

“Writing about any feelings of sadness allows me to express and often release them in a safe way.  Since it’s been almost three years since my husband’s death, most people assume that the acceptable time period for experiencing (or at least expressing) grief has passed.  Some friends and family members have made it clear that they aren’t interested in hearing about any residual feelings of grief that I may have.  In general, I’ve found that heart-felt expressions concerning emotional pain are unwelcome except with certain friends or in specific situations (such as a grief support group).  In my journal I am free to share intimate details about my memories of my husband and feelings of pain and longing without regard for possible judgment.

“Journal writing isn’t only about expressions of pain.  Another feature of journal-writing that I love is that I can record pleasant memories or some of the serendipitous, sometimes mystical experiences that have touched my life since my husband’s death.  There have been moments when I have clearly felt and experience my husband’s presence in delightful and unexpected ways.  I have also felt that there have been instances of divine intervention in which unseen forces have intervened on my behalf to provide support or assistance with the resolution of some sort of challenging situation.  Writing about these moments allows me to honor them and preserve them in a way that they can be revisited in the future.  Memories can fade but journal entries can be re-read and re-experienced over and over.  In my journal I can also explore my feelings of hope for a new life without my husband- a life that is still very much a work in progress.

“The journal writing has also opened up a space for more freedom of expression.  I have written a few poems during quiet ferry trips, reflecting some of the solitary insights that I’ve experienced.  In the past, the inner critic usually held me back from writing poetry.  I was concerned that my poetry would be judged as silly or non-relevant and not be valued by others.   In my bereavement process I’ve learned a lot about taking care of myself and honoring my unique life experience.  Now I write for myself and the satisfaction that it gives me; it doesn’t matter whether others read or like my poetry.

“As the third anniversary of my husband’s death approaches I feel a greater sense of peace and confidence.  The first two anniversaries were extremely difficult for me.  Writing has definitely helped me to come to terms with this tremendous loss.   My Buddhist teachers have often explained that the realm of human experience is characterized by both pleasure and pain, loss and gain, as well as joy and sorrow.  It’s clear to me that the writing process can help us to explore the very experiences that make us human.”