No end to grieving for fallen officers' families

Patricia Santiago, mother of slain Philadelphia Officer Isabel Nazario, is comforted by Philadelphia Capt. Jim Kelly as her daughter Mimi Mohamad copies Nazarios name from a Washington memorial.
Patricia Santiago, mother of slain Philadelphia Officer Isabel Nazario, is comforted by Philadelphia Capt. Jim Kelly as her daughter Mimi Mohamad copies Nazarios name from a Washington memorial. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: July 23, 2009

One in an occasional series on how families of slain police officers cope with the wrenching loss.

After they stood for three hours through a depressing memorial ceremony, Larry McDonald and his entourage were emotionally spent, and, frankly, ready for a round of beers and some comic relief.

They filed past the wall where the name of Patrick McDonald, Larry's son, was etched among those of other slain police officers. They found the bus for home, took their seats, and waited for other passengers to pile in. The driver finally shut the door and started the engine. From the back, a man's somber voice announced, "OK. This is the most appropriate time to say this."

The passengers fell silent, waiting for the pronouncement.

"Kumbayaaaaa . . .," he sang, painfully off-key.

Everyone roared with laughter.

"Keep it up and your name will be on that wall next year!" cracked some member of the police brass in a Southern drawl.

When an officer is killed on duty, the survivors are promised that they and their loved ones will never be forgotten.

City officials, the police force, friends, and neighbors all keep that promise, holding formal memorial ceremonies, dedicating plaques, performing tributes in schools, and organizing fund-raising runs and bike rides and dinners.

The result, survivors say, is a mixed blessing.

The generosity, kindness, and respect they're shown humble them, they say, and make their loss easier to bear. But the constant attention also becomes an obligation, and closure is all the more elusive.

Earnest ceremonies seem almost designed to elicit tears. "If they want to make me cry, it isn't hard to do," said one survivor who didn't want to be named for fear of sounding ungrateful. "But haven't we cried enough?"

Gratitude often competes with guilt as families have to choose which events to attend and which to decline.

"I almost didn't go to this one," Judy Cassidy said recently of an assembly that schoolchildren had prepared in honor of her husband. Philadelphia Officer Chuck Cassidy died Nov. 1, 2007, after he was shot in the head during an attempted robbery at a Dunkin' Donuts. "The kids put so much work into this. I'm so glad I went."

Even small events, she said, require thought, planning, and care, so she feels terrible any time she has to say no to an invitation.

"You can't go to everything," she said. But none of the events are trivial enough to pass up. "I've come to realize everything is big."

A public affair

From the moment an officer's family arrives at the emergency room and finds mourners lined up for blocks to pay their respects, the grieving becomes a public affair.

Police escort the mourners from the viewing at the funeral home to the cemetery. The city's highest elected officials pay homage. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey makes sure that every officer killed in the line of duty receives full honors in an elaborate ceremony.

But the magnitude of the event can overwhelm family and friends. Survivors say they have heard enough bagpipe renditions of "Amazing Grace," seen enough white-gloved salutes, and sat through enough speeches about honor and heroism to last several lifetimes.

They have received enough framed citations, handwritten condolence notes, banners, flowers, and brass encomia to fill rooms.

But when the next invitation to a tribute is handed to them - and it will be - most will gratefully accept.

They will ride in motorcades and kneel at grave sites and meet with politicians from now until whenever, because they believe that is their duty.

"Any time I think I just can't do this anymore, I think of all that my son put into his job," Larry McDonald said. "My son gave everything he had. There was nothing left for him to give. So I do this for him."

Ramsey met with the survivors last winter to ask them what services they want and need, but several said they weren't sure how to answer.

"Everyone is grieving in a different way," said Patsy McDonald, whose son, Pat, was killed in September after pulling over a car with a broken taillight.

All the kindness and generosity are accompanied by the shadow of loss.

"It's hard to really appreciate it," says Megan McDonald, Pat's sister. "Because what you really want is for the person to be alive. What you really want is for it never to have happened."

Helpful seminars

In May, during National Police Week, Philadelphia Police Officer Mimi Mohamad went to Washington to meet a group of 80 runners who had left from the Philadelphia Navy Yard three days earlier on a fund-raising marathon. Mohamad's sister, Isabel Nazario, was killed in September when her patrol car was crushed by a stolen SUV driven by a 16-year-old.

Mohamad had shown up early to see the runners off at the start and wanted to welcome them at the finish. Several had run in honor of her sister. One wore a T-shirt that read, on the front, "Philadelphia police under attack" and, on the back, "A city that makes enemies of its police had better make friends with its criminals."

"Thank you," Mohamad said, weeping and hugging one sweaty runner after another.

Larry McDonald had stayed at the hotel, explaining, "I need a nonemotional day. The crossword looks good to me."

None of the Philadelphia families attended the seminars offered by Concerns of Police Survivors, a national organization for the families of fallen officers. There were sessions on coping with grief and anger, and meetings for in-laws, wives, children, and siblings.

Jennifer Thacker, president of the group and widow of a slain Kentucky police officer, said she understood that the organization's help does not suit everyone. But not all survivors have as extensive a support network as those in Philadelphia.

Many survivors feel isolated. "They come to us and realize they're not the only one."

Her group can also help reassure survivors that memorial burnout is a common problem. "I'll tell them, 'You don't have to show up. You have to do what's going to help you,' " Thacker said. "Eventually, some get to a point where they are able to go back and support other families who have lost a loved one. But it can also be a burden. They can take on some of the other people's grief."

A year and a half after her husband's death, Judy Cassidy stood before a filled auditorium at Cardinal Dougherty High School with her children behind her. A plaque was about to be dedicated to Chuck and placed in the lawn outside the school they both attended in the 1960s.

"Wow," Judy said. "I knew there would be a few people here, but this is overwhelming."

She can't begin to name everyone who has reached out to her family. A trust fund was set up for the children. One officer drops off flowers or a gift card to Saladworks. At the dedication, she gave special thanks to the Fraternal Order of Police; to Jimmy Binns, the pinstriped lawyer who organizes plaque ceremonies; and to the officers of the 35th District, who have stayed by her side.

"This seems like a nightmare," she said, crying. "But the support we get from you makes this very difficult situation easier."

Renewed faith

On the last night in Washington, the McDonalds hosted a get-together in their hotel suite for everyone who had accompanied them.

As the sun set and the noise rose, their daughter Megan leaned against a wall and took in the scene.

Her mother, surrounded by Pat's friends, laughed as they recalled his meticulousness and the special formula he concocted for cleaning his motorcycle. Her father seemed happy, talking about the police and firefighters' Blue Flames football team, which dedicated the season to Pat.

Her brother's death was devastating, Megan said. "But all the love and support has really renewed my faith in the city of Philadelphia. That's what life's about. It's not about cutting people's throats to get to the top. It's about connecting and taking care of each other. . . . I felt it was my duty to come back and give back as well."

She has transferred to Drexel Law School. This summer she has an internship with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office.

"All these ceremonies can be annoying," she said. "But they create opportunities like this. Look at this. All these people are so awesome to be around. What if my parents didn't have that?"


 

Video interviews with family members and previous stories in the series are at http://go.philly.com/mourning


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|