Choices: Bitter or Better

May 28, 2010

Earlier this month, Sgt. Joe Bergeron, a 26-year veteran of the Maplewood Police Department, was memorialized after being executed in his squad car. He is survived by a large family and many in law enforcement who are mindful that, on any given day, they could suffer the same fate.

Such a cold-blooded crime against one who wears a uniform incites anger, fear, and survivor’s guilt, making a challenging job even more difficult for those who protect and serve. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek encouraged his deputies to attend the funeral so they would confront the reality of their occupation. He wanted them to understand that death can be part of their job; they can control some things, but not others; but mostly, they cannot do their jobs in the grip of fear. Stanek knew that as they sat in the cold St. Paul Cathedral, listening to the bagpipes and watching the slain sergeant’s family, many officers asked themselves, “Why him and not me?”

An insidious emotion if indulged, survivor’s guilt is pervasive. Since December, I have attended three funerals of men whose deaths, like Bergeron’s, were sudden and premature, leaving survivors to sort through complicated emotions and seek answers to boundless questions. After my husband Ted’s heart attack, days before Christmas, I grappled with my own survivor’s guilt, wondering why I lived through my cancer battle, but he died in an emergency room surrounded by strangers. Ted had such reverence for life. While he viewed the glass as half full, I often saw it as half empty. Most of all, I believed he was more lovable, loving, and loved. Why him, instead of me?

As I recovered from the initial shock and despair, new perspective replaced futile thoughts. Confronted with the reality that life expectancy is a number calculated by actuaries, I began to see each sunrise as a gift, not an entitlement. Assuming there will always be tomorrow to resolve differences or take a deferred vacation can be risky in the face of so much uncertainty and so little control. I cannot speak for Sgt. Bergeron, but I’d wager that Ted would have been dismayed to know his survivors were tormented by thoughts such as, “It should have been me.” Rather, he would have felt his life was of greater consequence if others recognized how fleeting theirs could be and became more compassionate or charitable.

When tragedy strikes, it is natural to ask questions and seek answers. We need life to make sense. Yet like guilt, too much brooding can foster unproductive emotions: angst, fear, and bitterness, yield confusion and even paralysis. On many a cold night, I sustained my insomnia with endless thoughts of why, why not, and what if. With the pollen flying and flowers blooming, I imagine similar thoughts taking root in the minds and souls of Bergeron’s family and colleagues. Moreover, with Memorial Day upon us, those in the military and intelligence sectors who lost comrades or loved ones may be dancing with their own demons. While the circumstances may differ, no amount of bargaining or self-flagellation will alter the outcome for any of us.

With Bergeron’s death so fresh and raw, these days must be unsettling for those who protect the rest of us — as well as those who wait for their return each working day. It cannot be easy to exercise both vigilance and restraint after a fellow officer is shot while sitting in his car. It must be lonely to work in a profession in which outsiders cannot appreciate how taxing it can be to balance fear and caution. It must require great willpower to keep the demons at bay.

I’m told that, confronted with difficult circumstances, we can respond by becoming bitter … or better. Becoming bitter would be almost effortless. One can embrace the bottle or hit the buffet line to placate the pain. Rather than assuaging the guilt, though, such indulgences can fuel it and breed new problems.

On the other hand, becoming better can require extraordinary effort when energy is in short supply Becoming better means abandoning the questions for which there are unsatisfactory answers; searching for meaning when it may be elusive; looking at the glass as half full. Choosing “better” requires rising after a sleepless night, slapping on lipstick or a hat and meeting a friend for coffee — instead of staying in bed and watching CSI re-runs. Choosing better means honoring the dead by carrying on their legacy.

Choosing not to be bitter does not mean the pain and longing will miraculously disappear, the questions will cease, or shattered dreams will be restored. But choosing “better” means survivor’s guilt must find a new host.

I have searched, but have discovered no rhyme or reason to tragedy, no explanation for what so often appears to be randomness. Although some are dealt more blows than others are, it is part of the human condition to suffer heartache and disappointment, however imperceptible it may be to others. Regardless of how we earn a living, when we become victims of tragedies, we have one thing in common — a measure, at least, of free will. Free will empowers us to control our choices, attitudes, and behavior in the aftermath of the unimaginable. Standing in the fork of the road, we can choose to be bitter … or better.