The Mindful Officer: Lessons from Harvey

On processing loss, tragedy, & change, every day

By Shawn Perron  |   Oct 25, 2017

Fully grounded in how much we often take for granted, in knowing that tragedy is part of our daily experience as first responders, the author hopes to share some of the more effective mindfulness techniques for this audience. This at a time when it’s hard to find a dry place to sit around my parts …

About 75 miles southeast of Houston, Texas, and in the light of florescent bulbs, which is my least favorite light of all, I finally sat down. After five days in the dark, even florescent light is appreciated. We are no strangers to rain down this way, nor do we get too excited or anxious about tropical storms that often target the upper Texas Gulf Coast. For me, personally, my heart broke with the landfall of Hurricane Harvey as all my flights (scheduled for months) to meet with my son and celebrate his 21st birthday were cancelled. The destination: Las Vegas.

Second landfall and Houston would not let this Harvey dude go! I say this jokingly, because my son understands my commitment to him and this career I chose 22 years ago. Frankly my son humbles me with his maturity and understanding. He may not struggle as much with my absence as I do with two decades of missing many birthdays, ball games, school performances, and scheduled shows (my boy is a musician) because of work. Hard to say you’re the boy’s biggest fan when you miss so much of his life.

This is why an open-minded commitment and attempt to sharpen our skills in being “fully present” in heart and mind is so very important—hence my enthusiasm for daily mindfulness practice. So having whined a bit about my lack of luck in catching a flight (out of tragedy) to spend a few days in “Sin City” with my grown son, it was obvious and apparent that my karma had made landfall along with Hurricane Harvey.

For my childhood hometown (also the community for which I work), most of middle and upper Texas Coast and neighboring Southwest Louisiana there has been no shortage of loss, death, hardship, and confusion. Most on the Gulf Coast are well experienced in prepping and surviving hurricanes down this way. We are by no means “rookies” over this last decade or so (Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, Harvey …). In other words, usually it takes a CAT 3 storm to send these folks scrambling to high ground.

Enter Harvey.

Double landfall along with slow ground speed, torrential rains (over just a few days) added close to 60 inches locally to already saturated soil conditions. Everyone was affected, not unlike terrorist attacks, active-shooter scenarios, or even large scale industrial accidents. It’s a great equalizer that left many of us homeless or jobless. I don’t like the word victim, but it’s the go-to these days. Isn’t survivor a better term? Such large-scale devastation has the power of bringing us all together.

Ultimately we will have to face any tragedy individually and on personal level. Many of us push forward through our difficulties—don’t think about it, and keep moving. Or we may disconnect totally from the human tragedy as we see so much of it on a daily basis. This does not serve us well when we are dealing with personal difficulties. Eventually we will become exhausted—and foggy, or even confused—by trying to “gut” everything out, or tuck it away.

Why? Most obviously, it consumes energy to keep those emotions at bay. And eventually it will catch up to you, often in mystifying ways, affecting those around you. There are healthy ways to keep that from happening, and here are some useful strategies in using mindfulness to help when things become overwhelming or just too heavy to handle

Mindful Methods of Processing Tragedy, Loss, & Change

Ask for help or support. This is difficult for most cops (men in particular). Don’t try to shoulder tragedy or trauma in solitude. Talk to friends and co-workers, trusted spiritual leaders, or professionals, as needed. One of the better ways to do this if you’re a bit prideful or apprehensive about directly seeking help is to offer someone else support or help.

Provide help or support for someone else. Be there for someone who may need it just a bit more than yourself and you will ultimately get an opportunity to share or mention some of the difficulties you may be having. This works well both ways.

Take some time to visualize or reflect on your history of proven survival skills. Find a quiet place to yourself. Everyone alive has faced adversity and come out on the other side. Recall, step by step, how you have successfully negotiated difficulties, trauma, tragedy, or loss in your life before this latest experience. Try to connect to those feelings of courage, strength, perseverance, and relief, and use those connections to implement your path using those same sources that worked in your life prior to this event.

Trust in yourself (experience and ability). You have made it thus far in life, and successfully survived many tragedies and changes almost on a daily basis. All opportunities arise from change, even chaos. This current experience may present a different challenge or level of emotion but is no different, in a theoretical sense, than those previously conquered.

Create an image in your mind’s eye of the “greener grasses” and portrait of successful navigation through this difficulty, loss, or trauma. Yes, this is challenging when in the midst of immense stress, emotion, exhaustion, or even grief. But you are creating the direction and path of your future. When overwhelmed it is most important to prioritize and take small steps. Keep your goals reachable and don’t try to push through many at once. We can only complete one thing at a time, and be present in each moment at a time. But visualizing your direction and path for the future is an important and a positive way for small reprieve from often harsh reality or difficult living conditions.

Stay present and centered (embodied) during those most unpleasant or painful difficult emotions, feelings. Emotions and feelings often come in waves (or storms). This is very accurate description for emotions because most often they overtake us and we have very little control when or why—just like the weather. To stay centered, or embodied, and present in the moment simply breathe deeply, and observed the senses. Sights, sounds, smell, taste, and touch—your five senses can always give you an accurate present moment observational report of what the body is experiencing. It can be overwhelming and even scary at times. Remember that these are just emotions, and they let us know (as does pain) that we are alive. We label these emotions as unpleasant but they will all pass just as the good ones do. Remember: All that you resist will persist. Feelings won’t harm you. On the contrary, facing them and allowing them to surface will be most healthy for you and those around you.

Change is a natural cycle just as the seasons. Think of change and loss as a less severe or damaging term for tragedy or trauma. Most of which should not to be taken personally like assault committed against your person. Depending on where we live one must prepare for the changing seasons. In the winter we must accept the loss of leaves on the trees and our backyard gardens and flowers fall to decay. But as spring nears, the harsh cold becomes less severe, and the leaves and flowers and garden vegetables all will grow again. Like pacing ourselves for a long journey, we can do the same during difficult times when change and loss are always inevitable, and as sure to happen as the rising and setting of the summer sun.

Tragedy will often bring out the best or worst in your fellow brothers and sisters. As Mark Twain said, “The universal brotherhood of man [and woman] is our most precious possession. Because brothers don’t let each other wander in the dark alone.” Similarly Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools.”

 

Author’s Note: This article is dedicated to our fellow brothers and sisters who selflessly left their homes and families to assist the community of Port Arthur and Southeast Texas during the Hurricane Harvey Recovery.

LOUISIANA

Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office

Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office

Acadia Parish Sheriff’s Office

TEXAS

Georgetown SWAT

Grapevine SWAT

Texas Department of Public Safety

DPS

Texas Rangers

Washington, D.C., Metro Police

Dekalb County (Georgia) Sheriff’s Office

Words alone cannot express our heartfelt gratitude that made it possible for us to serve our community and with your relief efforts begin to rebuild our own lives and homes as well. We are forever grateful for your sacrifice and voluntary commitment to your brothers and sisters in law enforcement and community members.

The author with Calibre Press lead instructor Lt. Kelly DeVoll during rescue efforts.


 


 

 

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Shawn Perron

Shawn Perron

Sgt. Shawn Perron has worked as a police officer in Texas for 22 years. He regularly attends mindfulness retreats and has studied meditation and eastern philosophy at many Zen Centers throughout the U.S. Sgt. Perron writes in his spare time and voluntarily teaches basic mindfulness techniques.