First Responder Grief: Moral Injury 

One of the least noticed griefs that first responders experience is what is known as moral injury, the broken trust with a worldview that includes emotional safety. Moral injuries include learning that you can’t stop crime, you can’t make a dent in war, and you can’t save everyone who needs saving. They include the knowledge that people who die—whether in house fires and earthquakes and from anything else—had their own hopes, dreams, aspirations, and even plans for dinner that night.

Moral injuries include grieving your own humanity and humanness, as well as your regrets for what you’ve done wrong and anger at injustices done to you. You might think, “I didn’t sign up for this!” but the reality supersedes the fantasy.

Moral injuries are especially prevalent in the military. WWII vets were “the greatest generation,” Korean vets were virtually forgotten, Vietnam vets—most of them draftees—were loudly reviled, Gulf War vets were glorified, and Afghanistan vets have been in a sort of limbo in which their country doesn’t know what to do with or for them.

Vets Struggle with Trauma

It’s a situation that leaves many vets uncomfortable. Here’s how one described it:

“I think everyone who responds to a situation like war experiences grief to a varying degree based on just the sheer absurdity of the situation and how those types of traumas don’t fit in the real world, or rather within the world in which we spend (hopefully) 18-plus years living safely. I think there’s a bit of grief that comes from that breakdown of previous concepts of reality. And I think the grief very much could set the parameters of the trauma. I mean, of course, if you have a broken leg, you have a broken leg. There’s no question about that, but a lot of my people I served with in Afghanistan have come back and gotten varying disability ratings and diagnoses based on their experience there, and the one common thing that I’ve seen in terms of their trauma is that it’s all centered around the holistic, the overall injury. It’s not just one aspect of it.” (Collin Rockey)

“I’ve known stories of soldiers who, 35 years after the war ended, are still consumed with guilt for what they did or didn’t do.” (Glenn Schiraldi)

“Military, police, and corrections are also the only disciplines which not only have the authority but a duty in some cases to break one of society’s biggest taboos and intentionally and deliberately take a human life. The very nature of this mandate reinforces a mindset of dominance and control as well as the suppression of emotions, especially grief, in order to prepare oneself for the rare but always present possibility of mortal combat every time an officer or a soldier in theater reports for duty.” (Marc “Junk” Junkerman)

As former US Army Officer, Law Enforcement Lieutenant (Ret.), and ICISF Consultant Marc “Junk” Junkerman suggested, just being in law enforcement, the military, and corrections professions gives these first responders the duty of potentially taking a life. This power inherently separates first responders from the people they seek to protect, in itself a form of a moral injury.

Moral Injuries and Police

Moral injuries are common in other first response jobs, of course. For example, the work of all types of law enforcement officers is currently highly contentious and deeply critiqued in North America. Despite the fact that, as Deputy Sheriff Jerry Weaver said, “ignorance does not have a color,” skin color and race have led to significant “regrets” that Weaver, a Black career officer, expressed could be alleviated when officers and civilians of any skin color “just treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Some of the most challenging cases occur when there’s a fatal confrontation with officers where the race of the victim becomes a media focal point. As Detective Sergeant (Ret.) Shawn McCowell of the Peel Regional Police in Canada noted, there’s a fine line between “public scrutiny as a necessary part of an organization’s transparency, and which should be welcomed, and exploiting any issue between the police and the community as irresponsible journalism.”

First Responders and Shame

Lt. Steven Thomas of the Anne Arundel Police Department shared that “Officers’ inappropriate behaviors often can be linked back to unaddressed, repeated traumas experienced throughout their careers.” Law enforcement officers who entered this work with happiness and have done their jobs without committing or creating unnecessary violence or confrontation may find themselves experiencing shame in that their career choice is so different from what they’d hoped for.

“My heart hurts for these young men and women that are coming out now and they’ve got 20-25-30 years to go. I don’t know any other occupation where you need to be worried about somebody spitting in your food because of the clothing you wear. The person that would spit in your food is the same person you’d risk your life to save. I think there used to be a pride in that I’ll do whatever needs to be done even if I don’t know the person. But I am very concerned about how society has chipped away at that pride to the point that altruism is gone. And so why are people doing this job? I don’t want an officer doing this job because they can make a lot of money or because they get to carry a gun or because they get to drive a car fast. I want people doing this job because they want to help people and save lives and protect the innocent and the weak.” (Renee “Gunny” Plumb)

First Responders and Disappointment

Law enforcement officers also may be disappointed, especially in colleagues who lose the point of their work.

“For many of us, policing/military work is not just a job; it’s a vocation. You care about people and you are willing to work long hours in sometimes dangerous circumstances to see them safe. [. . .] Criminality, to me, is the wanton disregard for the ethics and values that we swear to uphold in our oath of office. The overall majority of law enforcement are of high character. The criminal cop is a rare exception; however, [they are] no less corrupt and perhaps even more so if they have breached their oath and used their position for nefarious advantage. [. . .] If the police are having it tough, then how tough is it for the victims of crime? (Shawn McCowell)

Other instances of a shattered worldview, as US Army Veteran, PTSD Specialist, and ICISF Faculty Dr. Glenn Schiraldi offered, includes the losses of personal dreams, inner peace, confidence in the unit or department, and self-confidence after an error.

Beth Hewett

Beth L. Hewett knows grief from personal experience, and she has a heart for those who grieve their loved ones. Her desire to help other bereaved people led to her work as a Certified Thanatologist (CT) with the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) and as a Certified Compassionate Bereavement Care™ Provider with the MISS Foundation. She also has earned a certificate in Death and Grief Studies from the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is a former National Catholic Ministry for the Bereaved Minister of Consolation Trainer.

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