A Lost Friend (Une Amie Perdue)



Last year as my friend Amy and I sat watching the widely televised funeral of a police officer, she asked, “Why do you cops make such a big deal out of this?” Her question surprised me. Why indeed? Was there a need for all the posturing? For all the media attention? Wasn’t that officer merely a father, or son, or husband, or brother? What right did hundreds of police officers, total strangers, have to mourn him as their own? Is it really more tragic when a death occurs in the line of duty?

We officers impose on the family’s right and need to mourn privately and quietly. The hype of our united presence forces the family’s names and faces into the newspapers and onto the television.

With our splendid dress uniforms and elaborate ceremonies, we add hours and days, even weeks, of public mourning to the family’s grief. Then we make pilgrimages to Washington to salute the memorial and bring home pencil etchings of the officers’ names. Is the purpose behind all of these displays as my friend thought - simply a manifestation of “there, but for the grace of God, go I”?

I often wondered. Until August 27th.

On August 27th, I reported to work and found a fax in my mailbox. It was from Europe and I read it eagerly, expecting a wedding announcement from my dear friends, Françoise and Eric, in Belgium. But the fax was from Eric’s friend and the second paragraph stopped my heart. I felt weak. It read, “Your friend Françoise is dead on patrol August 1.”

Those words stood out from all the others as though they’d been written in blood. The phrase “dead on patrol” ripped a hole in my heart that will never heal. I was overcome by an emotion I’d never experienced - complete and total anguish. The pain became worse when I learned that Eric had been the first to the scene where she died. He bears that burden because he too, is a police officer.

Like every person who has died, Françoise was beautiful - a beloved daughter, a cherished love, a special friend. But she was also a cop. She was a person who cared enough to step into a uniform and toe the thin blue line every day. Like all the others, her death was a waste and a tragedy. Unlike all the others, her death was a plague on society. Her dedication to humanity, her willingness to stand between good and evil was the monster that killed her. Françoise didn’t just die. She died because she was a police officer.

Police officers and friends,
Françoise Kiekeman, left, of the Uccle, Belgium Police

and Jill Wragg of the Yarmouth (MA) Police Department.

Suddenly, I understood the answer to Amy’s question because I was not just a friend mourning a friend. I was a cop mourning a cop, and it made everything different. I lost my balance.

I couldn’t concentrate at work. Every time I put on my uniform, the pain in my chest was overwhelming. I saw her at every traffic stop, at every domestic, at every accident. A mere glimpse of a blue uniform would spark tears. I left my vest in the locker room because I knew hers had not saved her life. I stood in the rain next to my patrol car and cried. I ran a red light with a handcuffed prisoner in the car. At home, I awoke drenched in sweat from dreams that re-enacted her death with me as a helpless witness. Every day was a new battle not to quit, not to give up. I grieved so deeply, I thought I’d explode.

The doubts that Amy had planted the year before vanished. I accepted the custom, the public display, the obligation, of mourning a fellow officer by draping my badge. And when I received the sometimes embarrassed condolences from my macho co-workers, I understood their motives. These men who normally scoffed at emotion and laughed off pain recognized, felt and shared mine. Their words, and their silences, showed me that it didn’t matter that they hadn’t known Françoise. And I understood that it wasn’t our own mortality that we mourned. It was the loss of another person in uniform. The loss of another piece of us. A link had been wrenched from the chain so the remaining links stretched a little more to come together and close the gap while hoping to maintain the integrity of the person who had gone.

In December, I made my pilgrimage. I returned to Belgium to honor Françoise’s life and death.

Belgian police officer
Françoise Kiekeman,
who was killed in the line of duty.

As a friend, I paid my respects in a grave yard filled with old people. As a cop, I accepted one of her epaulet insignia in her honor.

As a friend, I spent time with Eric and with Françoise’s family, comforting them with the knowledge that she was not alone and not forgotten. As a cop, I sought out photographs of the hundreds of officers and K-9 teams who gathered to mourn her, hoping to comfort myself with the knowledge that she was not alone and not forgotten.

As a friend, I strolled through the streets and parks where she and I had walked, laughing and talking about our lives. As a cop, I rode patrol with Eric and with Françoise’s colleagues.

As a friend, I allowed myself to be exposed to the media’s sensational front page photos of her bloodied patrol car, and I was angry. As a cop, I watched the video of the live news coverage that showed her fellow officers mingling around a covered body on the street near her patrol car, and I vomited.

As a friend, I helped maintain the simple beauty of her final resting place by brushing aside leaves and replacing dead flowers. As a cop, I averted my gaze to avoid seeing her name engraved in stone at the entrance to her precinct.

As a friend, I brought a Christmas tree decorated with teddy bears and a poem to the cemetery. As a cop, I left my draped badge on her headstone.

As a friend, I cried. As a cop, I cried.

It’s a new year now. I welcomed it in Europe with other foreign colleagues who understood my moment of silence when I acknowledged to myself that Françoise will never spend another New Year’s Eve waiting until midnight to kiss Eric, or patrolling the streets while the members of her community celebrate without a thought for the officers who keep them safe.

Françoise is gone but my questions have been answered.

Is it fair for police officers to mourn one of their own?

Yes.

Siblings, parents, and friends share a special bond that comes from familiarity, from love. Police officers, strangers or not, also share a special bond. It is a bond of mutual respect and understanding. The bond is a thin thread when compared to the ropes that bind families but it is strong. It is not the shared blood that creates the bond. It is the spilled blood, and the fact that the monster that killed Françoise lives inside all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

And is it more painful, more tragic, for a death to occur in the line of duty?

Yes.

Police officers may go to work expecting violence but we also expect what nurses, and zookeepers, and waiters expect. We expect to return home after each shift to hug our spouses, to phone our mothers, to take our kids bowling, and to let the dog out. One failure to return home weakens the chain and strengthens the monster.

The adage is true - when a police officer dies, a part of society dies. I know a part of me died on August 1st.

Au revoir, Françoise, et bon voyage.
Merci beaucoup pour la lumière du soleil.
Je t’embrasse tres forte. Bisous, Jill.



Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com

*** This piece is copyrighted and can be used with permission only. ***



2 comments:

Arnaud said...

Dear Jill,

My girlfriend, a Charlotte Police Officer, emailed me July's edition of Police Women's Magazine. In it, I found and read your article titled "Confessions of a Beat Cop".

I was both saddened by your story and amazed by your writing. Most importantly, I was finally able to better understand my girlfriend. Your words explained what she has been trying to tell me all along. I guess I had an idea but now I understand. Thank you.

I am from Belgium myself so once I read your dedication at then end of the page, I could not help but Google Francoise's name and found this page. I am really sorry for your loss. She had to be a very special person to have a friend like you.

Best of luck.
Arno

cj said...

Jill -

I agree with Arnaud. I have always been at a loss to explain how I feel when I hear of an officer's death. I tried the we're all part of the law enforcement family but... it wasn't enough.

You've given me the missing piece and I thank you for that.

cjh