For a garda, walking up a path to break bad news is so hard

Nothing can prepare a policeman for dealing with bereaved families, says Trevor Laffan
For a garda, walking up a path to break bad news is so hard

Tragedy and grief can often form a part of a garda’s day

AS a young garda in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, in the early 1980s, I went to the main street one evening to deal with an incident.

It was around teatime and the usual rush-hour traffic had come to a complete standstill. The reason for the upheaval soon became obvious.

A large crane had been operating earlier on a nearby building site. They finished work for the day, so the crane was unattended, with its arm extended out over the main street.

Some guy had managed to climb up onto the arm of the crane and he was threatening to jump. It was a first for me.

Negotiations were underway to encourage him to come down, while at the same time, members of the fire service were making their way slowly up the ladder of the crane.

This went on for some time and the traffic by then was chaotic. Cars were bumper to bumper, nothing was moving, and tempers were beginning to fray.

Car horns were sounding, and whatever sympathy existed for this unfortunate character earlier on was quickly disappearing.

Suddenly, a guy jumped out of his car and shouted abuse at the guy on the crane before getting back into his car and slamming the door. You could almost see the steam coming out of his ears.

Fortunately, the-would-be jumper was later brought safely down by the firemen, and the traffic slowly but surely got back to its normal rush- hour crawl.

That was more than 40 years ago, and fortunately things have changed a lot since then. These days, the world is more tuned into mental health issues.

If the same set of circumstances presented themselves today, the guy on the crane would be treated more sympathetically. At least, I would hope so.

Suicide is a sensitive subject and opinion is often divided on how to approach it. Some say that suicide is a waste of a life when so many are fighting disease and struggling to live. Others will argue that the unfortunate victims are not in control of their senses at that time and are therefore unfit to make rational decisions.

Unfortunately, in my time in An Garda Siochana, I had to deal with quite a few incidents of suicide. I tried to remain detached as much as possible, but when you’re dealing with the families, in the course of the normal investigation that occurs after such an event, it is difficult not to become emotionally involved to a certain extent.

Nothing can prepare a policeman for dealing with bereaved families. You can be trained in procedures and how to complete the paperwork required for the investigation, but there is no training that can prepare you for knocking on the front door of a house to tell the parents of some young person that their child won’t be coming home.

It is one of the most difficult tasks that any policeman will ever have to undertake.

It’s a lonely path walking up to that front door. There is no manual to refer to, there are no rules and no hiding place.

At that stage, you’re relying on gut instinct and empathy.

In the aftermath of those events, I often questioned whether I could have handled the situation better, but it is impossible to know because feedback is rare.

The families have only one thing on their mind, and it doesn’t include worrying about how you feel about yourself or how you performed your duty. But it did happen one time.

One night, many years ago, I was approached by an elderly man. I didn’t know him, but he identified himself as the grandfather of a young lad who had committed suicide some years before.

I had been involved in the case and I remembered it vividly for reasons I won’t go into for fear of identifying that family.

He took my hand in his and he looked me straight in the eye and he told me that I would never know what I had done for his family. He thanked me and then walked away.

That had a profound effect on me, and I have never forgotten it.

It took an effort for that man to approach me and say what he did, and I will be forever grateful that he took the time to do so.

That is as much of an acknowledgement as you can wish for that you did something right.

A friend of mine took his own life a few years back and I remember going to the funeral home to pay my respects to the family. When I saw him laid out in the coffin, I was angry with him for doing what he did. I was annoyed that he hadn’t said something.

I had been with him a few days earlier and hadn’t noticed anything untoward, and I wanted to throttle him for not speaking up. It was a reaction that was based more on grief than logic.

Experts tell us that many people find themselves under pressure at this time of the year. Thankfully, there is more understanding of mental health these days and greater awareness of the help that is available, so hopefully those who need it will reach out.

The advice from the professionals is clear. If you can’t think of solutions other than suicide, it isn’t that other solutions don’t exist, but rather that you are currently unable to see them. The intense emotional pain that you’re experiencing in that moment can distort your thinking, so it becomes harder to see possible solutions, or to connect with those who can offer support.

Therapists, counsellors, friends or loved ones can help you to see solutions, but you must give them a chance to help.

Samaritans services 24 hours a day. Call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie. Pieta provide suicide and self-harm prevention services. Freephone 1800 247 247 any time.

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