New York State Funeral Directors Association

A Funeral Director's Role In Remembering NYPD Heroes Who Die By Suicide

NYPD Officer Kevin Preiss and his partner got flagged down by citizens and jumped into action, saving the life of a man who had a heart attack.

Three years later, the pair delivered a baby when a woman couldn’t make it to a hospital.

Both men would be considered heroes by anyone’s standard.

But Preiss’ name won’t be etched on the NYS Police Officers Memorial in Albany, nor will he find a place on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

Preiss took his own life.

Two months later, Preiss’ friend in the NYPD, Officer Johnny Rios, also killed himself. By mid-August, the number of NYPD officers who had died by suicide reached nine.

Suicide rates are alarming for those high-stress professions including firefighters, paramedics and EMTs and members of the military.

They all have one thing in common: a funeral.

This puts funeral directors in the position to do some good that might help guests at the funeral adopt a healthier perspective and perhaps seek help if they’re having thoughts of suicide themselves.

Those who have studied suicide offer some clues that might help other officers who may also be at risk for suicide to seek help by talking to someone.

Studies and writings so far suggest some things that may seem counterintuitive, others are straightforward – and only the funeral director can determine if and when any of these insights can be brought to grieving loved ones or shared with guests at the funeral of a first-responder who died by suicide.

REMEMBER ALL FIRST-RESPONDERS AS HEROES

When a policeman is killed during a crime, the funeral that follows draws hundreds of police – officers from other states and departments all show up to honor their colleague and show their solidarity. Suicide Warnings card

These funerals garner a great deal of attention including photography in newspapers and videos on television.

But after an officer dies by suicide, the funeral gets little, if any, attention from the media.

What did officer Preiss’ friend, Officer Johnny Rios, experience during Preiss’s funeral? Could that funeral service have made a difference?

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hosted the National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health in 2013 to strategize and fight the growing number of officer suicides.

A paper that followed declared that participants “overwhelmingly agreed that police departments should honor how officers lived and not how they died.”

The idea that those who die by suicide fade into obscurity is a sentiment that’s been echoed by others studying the topic.

The charitable Ruderman Family Foundation in 2018 published a study which said “The vast majority of first responder suicides are not covered by the mainstream media, and the public is not given the opportunity to celebrate the lives of those lost.”

Among the study’s conclusions: “… we should celebrate the lives of first responders who die by suicide. Through media coverage and more, they should be remembered as heroes.”

The IACP report noted that the U.S. Military’s approach to members’ suicides, as it relates to funerals, receives high praise.

The U.S. Army’s rules regarding a service member’s funeral, for example, are straightforward:

“Commanders will conduct a memorial event for every Soldier who dies while assigned to their unit, regardless of the manner of death, including suicides.”

While it’s not typical for funeral directors to “invite” anyone to a funeral service – that’s the job of family – the symposium on officer suicide suggests police department leadership “be physically present at the funeral” of an officer who dies by suicide.

Like anyone, police and other first-responders need social support and the feeling of belonging, said Ann Marie Farina, executive director of the nonprofit Code Green Campaign which focuses on mental health, education and advocacy for first-responders.

“They are two of the most important factors for reducing symptoms of both traumatic stress and chronic stress in first responders. Furthermore, a handful of studies have shown that support from supervisors can have a more significant effect on symptoms of trauma than support from peers,” Farina said in an August, 2019 opinion article on Vox.com.

GET QUESTIONS ASKED

The United States Air Force is recognized for its work reducing the number of military personnel suicides.

One of the Air Force’s three-step, life-saving methodologies, called Ask*Care*Escort, recommends people ask open and direct questions that could help determine if their friend or loved one is having thoughts of suicide:

“Although it can be awkward, it’s important to ask the tough questions about whether or not your Wingman is thinking about harming or killing himself. If the answer is yes, or if you even suspect that the answer is yes, don’t leave the person alone.”

Sharing this information with guests at a funeral could mean a big difference in someone’s life.

KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS

People can also make a difference if they are aware of the signs someone is suicidal.

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Wallet Card titled “Suicide Warning Signs,” there are several indicators people should keep an eye out for.

They include: Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill oneself; talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live; talking about feeling trapped; talking about being a burden on others; increasing drug or alcohol use; anxious, agitated or reckless behavior; excessive or inadequate sleeping; self-isolation; being enraged or seeking revenge; and mood swings.

In a June article, the wife of a police officer who killed himself explained how her husband’s behavior changed leading up to his death. She said stress from his job was building up and he started drinking “a lot.”

She and other widows discussed the time leading up to their loved one’s suicide deaths, and they all said the political climate that followed police shootings gave these officers the impression that they were unpopular.

And they felt as though they were under the spotlight of constant scrutiny.

One wife suggested seeking help but learned the police officer wouldn’t because of the fear of several things: losing his job, missing out on a promotion, being put on desk duty or being labeled crazy so nobody would want to work with them.

BLUE H.E.L.P

The organization Blue H.E.L.P. is dedicated to bringing awareness to suicide and mental health issues. Its homepage shares several beliefs with important insights:

  • We believe that officers who suffer emotional injuries should be recognized and their service to the community honored.
  • We believe it’s time to put names and faces to the men and women who have died because their emotional injuries became too much to bear.
  • We believe it’s time to support the families who have lost loved ones to those injuries.
  • We believe in the saying, “It is not how they died that mattered, it is how they lived.”

RESOURCES


EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association