Lessons in Losing a Brother

News of an officer involved shooting cut through the rest of the morning talk-radio chatter on the drive to work.  Most of the other officers at the department had also heard the news, but the disposition was unknown.  We all hoped for the best of course, but sharing a common in-car messaging system, several unanswered messages began to increase concern. Eventually, a voice on the other end of the phone from the Taylor Police Department (Taylor, MI) confirmed that in an early morning situation, an Officer had been killed in the line of duty.

The next few hours, although I remember much of them in detail, still became a blur. When I returned to the Department, guys took my gun belt off and loaded me into a car to get me where I needed to go and stayed with me as long as was needed. I will forever be grateful for all those officers during those hours.  You see, losing a brother in blue is never easy under any circumstance, and the feeling of loss extends beyond the borders of any jurisdiction.  But long before Cpl. Matthew Edwards was my brother in blue he was…just my brother.

As I type this, it has been 4 years and 112 days since Matt’s murder and I continue to be changed by that event and have tried to understand what I can learn from it in order to make me a better person and a better officer.  I wanted to share a few of those things I’ve learned along the way so far. Perhaps you too have learned similar things or maybe something altogether different and I’d love to hear your stories as well.

Reasons to do this job must run deep
Not surprisingly, my kids didn’t want me to return to work as a cop.  There were many conversations about the need I had to stay the course and continue to do what I set out to do in this career–that it’s what “Uncle Matt” would have wanted. There were late nights of trying to explain how our faith in God is what must carry us through as I looked into tearing eyes of kids struggling to find their own child-like faith.  My wife, ever supportive, knew that no matter what she said that we both knew what decision I would be making.

Shortly after I returned to work, I learned that there had been a debate as to whether I’d actually stay a cop. I was told that it was understandable if I quit.  But to me, there was very little question (if ever) that I would return to work and continue to fight for the same things that my brother fought for and in the same way: with integrity, service and honor.  By no means is this meant to highlight my own character.  It’s to highlight the fact that every single officer that has given his life before and after Cpl. Edwards and everyone that has stayed or signed up for this job knowing the risks have something much deeper moving inside of them that provides the strength and courage to serve their communities.

There is one primary reason any good cop does this job and it’s the most cliché: to help people. Cops learn to joke about this because the hard exterior necessary to do the job must be exposed, yet it is that weakness that is our greatest strength and fuels us with our greatest motivation to overcome the fear of losing our families and ourselves in this job. You come to see the purpose of law enforcement as greater than yourself, greater than any one individual.

This job isn’t meant to be done alone
Grief has a way of making us feel alone; almost as if it pushes us there and doesn’t want us to get out of the corner. But when you lose a brother in this profession, you realize you gain a million more.  The year after Matt’s death, I had the opportunity to go to National Police Week in D.C. (an event every LEO should attend during their career).  In a few short days, I was able to hear the experience of other officers from here and around the globe.  There is something quite fraternal about this job and it’s encouraging to know that you’re not alone in the fight.  We cannot replace our fallen brothers and sisters, but we can find unlimited support from law enforcement’s extended family.

No matter how hard someone may try to do this job alone, they will soon realize they are dependent on their fellow officers. They may not like one another outside of work (or even at work) but they better learn to have each other’s backs; we depend on it.  Together, we hold the line and should be willing to fight for one another down to our very last breath.  And contrary to popular opinion in the ranks of social media, good cops don’t like bad cops any more than you.

The Thin Blue Line Separates Us from Them
I was in the court room only a matter of feet from the man that shot my brother in cold blood and I was armed; not just me, but dozens of other cops.  The thought crossed my mind about how easy it would have been for myself, or any one of them that had served along side Matt, to put an end to this killer’s miserable excuse for a life.  Yet, no one said a malicious word to him; no one so much as threatened him.  In those difficult weeks of the trial, the thin blue line began to make sense to me. It was that restraint that existed in those suffering officers that separates us from them.

Oh that doesn’t mean none of us wanted to take our own revenge—cops are human.  But surrounded by a court room of others who stood on the right side of the thin blue line, I was reminded that our true character is revealed not in the moments when all is well, but when life becomes difficult.

It Never Gets Easier But You Can Get Better: FIGHT ON
This job comes with its unique stresses and its unique joys. The daily prospect of finding yourself in the fight for your life or helping your fellow officer in that same battle is always present. It never gets easy to do and nor should it. That ever-present danger helps us keep our edge and our focus. Two departments later, these lessons have all proven to true through my experiences.

To help fight on, we need to learn to process all that we see and do by channeling that into positive outlets: having greater devotion to family and spending time together with them, hanging out with other officers outside of work that we get along with and are a positive force in our lives, exercising to keep our bodies healthy and ready for the job, and enjoying hobbies that keep us refreshed and reminded of the normal world out there.

Personal note:
I never intended to write about this. Hell, I most often find it difficult just to think about. I definitely did not write this to bring attention to or for myself, but because I wanted to help others move beyond the experience of loss to learning from it in a way that would honor those who have come before us. This was my inspiration for designing the “Not in Vain” challenge coin as well.  If you need someone to listen to you, please reach out to a trusted friend or feel free to contact me. Thank-you (Mike)

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