Unlocking the Shackles of Grief

Group helps survivors of slain police through struggle with loss
Tuesday, March 29, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:56 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Columbia Police officer Corey Bowden woke up one January morning in John Beall’s nightmare.

Beall, a police officer in Dayton, Ohio, married his first girlfriend and high school sweetheart. They had three children. He and Mary Lynn Beall both worked at the Dayton Police Department.

In May 2000, covered by fellow officers, Mary Beall put down her gun to speak with an agitated and armed man. As she knelt to talk to him, he put his gun to her throat and shot her.

The bullet hit her spine, and she was paralyzed. Beall survived and lived without the use of her arms and legs for two years. She died from complications of her wounds in August 2002.

Suzie Sawyer, director of Concerns of Police Survivors, heard from a contact at the Columbia Police Department that Bowden’s wife, Molly, had been shot three times during a traffic stop. Her wounds killed her a month later. When Sawyer heard the news, she immediately thought of John Beall.

“This is the man who will help Corey Bowden,” she said she remembers thinking.

Conversations about death

Concerns of Police Survivors, sometimes called COPS, is a nonprofit group that helps families such as the Bealls and Bowdens cope with the loss of a family member killed in the line of police duty. COPS is a comfort, a confrontation, a restoration of control and, eventually, a conversation — about death.

Right now, Corey Bowden isn’t ready to mine the depths — at least not with a newspaper reporter — about how he’s feeling about the loss of his wife. He says he and the kids are “hanging in there” and “doing fine.” But his protectiveness of his children is obvious when the subject of their stepmother is brought up. He steers way from the subject.

At some point, Beall said, survivors like Bowden want to begin the conversation about the subject they’re not quite ready to deal with in the beginning.

There are recurring themes, and some ready — although not always comforting — answers:

  • “It’s something you never recover from,” Beall said.
  • “There is no such thing as closure,” Sawyer said.
  • “A lot of people say, ‘I’ll do anything for you,’” Beall noted, “but some of those people disappear.”
  • “Cops don’t like to talk about death,” Sawyer said, “because every day you put that badge on your chest, a gun on your hip, and you go out and do the job your buddy was killed doing.”

Sawyer is a jovial but practical woman, full of smiles and deep hearty laughs, an unlikely but perhaps perfect person to head an organization that deals with death.

“Our role begins after everything has supposedly returned to normal, after everybody quits talking about it,” Sawyer said.

The organization, based in the tiny town of Camdenton, southwest of Columbia, provides programs, counseling and support groups for family members and police departments that have lost an officer.

The group formed in 1983 when Lynn Bolton, whose husband died in the line of duty, asked Sawyer if the Fraternal Order of Police Auxiliary, of which Sawyer was then national secretary, could organize a grief seminar.

“And what would we talk about?” Sawyer asked. “Death?”

Sawyer said Bolton replied, “Yes, death. Because nobody in law enforcement ever talks about death, and every year 140 to 160 police officers die in the line of duty.” A year later, a grief seminar took place during the first annual Police Week, held in Washington D.C.

“Then of course, these police widows get pushy,” Sawyer said, chuckling to herself. “Pretty soon, they wanted a support group.”

Everyday reminders

Support takes the form of weekend seminars for spouses, parents and siblings of slain officers. Children who have lost a parent can take advantage of a summer camp in the Ozarks and two Outward Bound programs in Colorado and Utah.

Each individual struggle is different, but the pain is the same. Sawyer described how powerful it was to listen to families talk at seminars about their grief. “Some survivors say that they feel like they can’t get up in the morning. They feel every day is too much to handle.”

For Corey Bowden, daily life is full of reminders of his wife.

“It’s funny, all the things that happen in your day that jog your memory,” Bowden said. “The hardest part is that a street, a song, a restaurant we used to eat at; it makes me think of her.”

For Beall, whose wife died almost three years ago, “The everyday stuff is easier now. Holidays, birthdays; those are difficult.”

Surviving parents are required to come to the summer camp program with their children so they can share the experience. John Beall and his daughter Maddie, 11, went to their first camp in 2003.

“It’s good for my kids to be around teenagers and children who also lost a parent,” Beall said.

“I met a lot of new people there who all had something happen to them,” Maddie said. “They are just normal kids like I am.”

It was at camp that Maddie was able to discuss her greatest fear: that her father might also be harmed.

“I get a little scared sometimes,” she said, “but I know that he loves his job.”

At the weekend for surviving spouses, Beall was one of only two men in a group that included 92 women. Nevertheless, he found compassion and empathy. “I am a real private person,” he said. “But the ladies were really nice. They make you feel comfortable.”

Beall recently traveled to Tennessee to help Trina, a widow he met that weekend, make it through the trial of the person connected with her husband’s death.

“Unfortunately we’ve all got a lot in common,” Beall said. “We’ve all got kids; we’re all single parents now.”

Moving forward

In Columbia, Corey Bowden has just returned to work. He moved out of the West Policing District, his wife’s former beat, and now patrols the halls of Lange Middle School as a resource officer. He enjoys the new assignment.

“It’s definitely different than working on the street,” he said. “It’s going to be a good change of pace.”

Bowden said his sons, Brandon and Cody, are doing well. The brothers, 6 and 9, had their hands full taking care of their bull mastiff puppy and traveling to St. Louis and Branson during spring break.

Both boys begin Little League soon, but Cody said his favorite sport is football, the same sport his dad played for Rock Bridge High School.

Immersion in activity was part of the grieving process for Beall, as well.

“We traveled a lot,” he said. “I kept busy. I went back to work.”

Beall is still a patrol officer, though he said he’s more careful because he is the only one left for his children.

A helping hand

COPS operates on a $2.4 million budget. About $700,000 of that money comes from federal grants; the rest comes from fund-raising events or a direct-mail campaign. In 2004, the group spent more than $10,000 helping 19 Missouri residents.

“Some states have education benefits for kids who have lost a parent,” Sawyer said. “We give $75,000 a year in scholarships to kids who live in states without benefits.”

John Beall’s older daughter, Vanessa, received a COPS scholarship last year.

The organization also helps families understand the benefits for which they are eligible. COPS prints pamphlets detailing benefits and lobbies when paperwork is delayed.

But financial help isn’t the group’s main focus.

“All the money in the world doesn’t heal the head and the heart,” Sawyer said.

When a police officer dies, the group contacts the family and sends a liaison from one of 47 national chapters to the funeral to make introductions and to deliver contact information.

“They might never use it or they might just call when they are having a bad day,” Sawyer said.

Three police officers who are part of COPS’ Missouri Chapter were at Molly Bowden’s funeral.

Like Beall, Bowden received a letter of condolence from COPS after his wife’s death. Bowden has heard Beall’s story but hasn’t spoken with him. He said he hasn’t had a chance to look over all the information yet, but “it sounds like a really good program.”

In addition to Corey Bowden, the organization recently sent letters of condolence to Molly Bowden’s parents, Beverly and Dave Thomas, and to Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm.

The Columbia Police Department has its own services for officers struggling with the loss of Molly Bowden but is considering COPS’ programs.

“COPS is certainly something that we will turn to in the future,” said Capt. Brad Nelson. “I plan to look into a departmental-level in-service training to help us understand and cope with the loss of Officer Bowden.”

A little solace

Meanwhile, Corey Bowden and his sons are “taking it one day at a time,” Bowden said. After he was absent for weeks to care for his wife at University Hospital, Bowden found it difficult to return to Grace Bible Church.

“It was kind of hard at first; Molly introduced me to that church,” he said.

“The people have been so loving, and Pastor Burt has been amazing,” Bowden said. “Now Sundays are comforting.”

John Beall still lies awake at night wondering why death happened to his family. His son is graduating from high school this year, and Mary won’t be there. The space is always there.

“I never thought it would end up like this for us,” he said.

In 2003, officers from the Dayton Police Department accompanied Beall and his family to National Police Week and to see Mary Beall’s name inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial wall.

“It is hard, seeing your loved one’s name on another stone,” Sawyer said.

Bowden saw the memorial years ago during a training conference in Virginia, although he has never been there for National Police Week. In May 2006, when his wife’s name is etched in the stone wall alongside the names of more than 17,000 other officers killed on duty, Bowden hopes to be there — a place that will have an entirely new significance for him.

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