Every year at this time as we are celebrating holidays with family and friends, I always think about my worst Christmas ever.
I was 25 years old and in my first year of police work. It was early in the morning and I was asked to call the desk sergeant for an “assist other department” assignment.
The desk sergeant told me he had received a call from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. Early that morning, the Highway Patrol found a car in the brush along a freeway in Los Angeles County. Inside was a deceased male.
It was a single-vehicle accident no one had reported or witnessed.
The driver had been identified, but they were having difficulty determining his current residence. Apparently he had not kept his driver’s license or registration information current.
A piece of mail addressed to the occupant that was found in the car had an address in Anaheim. The coroner’s office asked us to check and see if anyone might know him.
After getting the necessary information, I responded to the address. It was one of those tiny homes located behind a front house.
I checked the mailbox and saw the name was different than the one I was being asked to check on. I wasn’t expecting much success.
I knocked on the door and a woman answered.
Immediately I knew something was very wrong. Her eyes were red and swollen. She had been crying. She raised her hands to her mouth in a look of shock and astonishment.
I’ve never forgotten the look on her face.
In the background I saw the small Christmas tree and still-wrapped presents. Two children stood just staring at me. It was a little girl and her younger brother.
I stammered for a bit and apologized for the early-morning visit. I asked if she knew the person I had been asked to check on.
She grabbed my arm and in a voice near hysterics asked me, “What happened? Is he OK?”
She then added: “He’s my husband. He didn’t come home from work last night.”
It didn’t help that I was left speechless. What was supposed to be a simple follow-up investigation had just turned into a death notification.
I couldn’t just blurt out her husband was dead on Christmas Day.
I asked for a sergeant to respond and explained to her I had to check on some things.
I used her phone to call the coroner investigator back. He again confirmed the information. I asked her a few questions and there was no doubt it was her husband.
By this time she was frantic and the children just sat quietly staring at me and then at their mother.
My sergeant responded and we had no choice but to tell her.
To this day, I don’t recall what I said other than she knew her husband had died in a traffic collision.
She recoiled and dropped to the floor sobbing uncontrollably. She kept crying over and over again, saying, “It’s not true, it’s not true!”
The children started crying.
At 25 years old, I wasn’t ready for this. Death was still very new to me. My heart was breaking with them.
Eventually, she calmed a bit. She didn’t want to talk to me anymore. I didn’t blame her.
The neighbor in the front house was contacted. She arrived and took over. She was able to contact other family members who were on their way.
In 1981, we had no police chaplain program and no crisis response teams. All we had was a caring neighbor to help us out.
Eventually we left. I still had the rest of the day to work.
As you go about celebrating your Christmas Day, remember the thousands of law enforcement officers who are working today. The calls they get on Christmas are never good.
Between the family fights, drunk drivers and accidents, it’s going to be a bad Christmas for someone out there. And oftentimes there will be a police officer there to experience it with them.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.