Tim Chitwood

In law enforcement, finding meaning in a life of facing death

Find meaning in life when you’re facing a corpse.

We all face death, eventually, some of us more often than others.

Become a cop, for example, and saying “I see dead people” won’t be a line from the Bruce Willis movie “The Sixth Sense.” It will be a fact of life.

I was reminded of this last week while viewing some crime-scene photos on the anniversary of a murder-suicide. Columbus today is bookended between two morbid anniversaries: On March 19, 2008, the bodies of a father and his three children were discovered off Chattsworth Road, a murder-suicide born of despair and mental illness.

A week later, a gunman went on a rampage in Columbus’ Doctors Hospital, killing three people before police wounded and arrested him in the parking lot. Some of the same police officers were summoned to both scenes.

You wonder, sometimes, how they deal with that.

On Friday, 20 graduates of the local police academy signed up to be city police officers. Some have children. Inevitably, each one day will have to look into the hollow eyes of a corpse. And the cadaver could be the remains of a child no older than one of their own.

How can anyone learn to endure that, over and over?

“It’s just something you have to deal with over time. Nothing can prepare you for it,” said police Capt. Vince Pasko. Now over personnel, he once was assigned to documenting crime scenes.

A child’s murder is always the most difficult, he said: “Dealing with the children, that’s the hardest thing. We all have kids. You never get over it, when it comes to kids. It’s always like the first time.”

One of the recruits graduating from the police academy had as a boy witnessed the abuse of an alcoholic stepfather. He now has a child of his own, a son who turns 12 today. Another recruit, who has three kids, had been in an abusive relationship.

Both saw police officers as guardians and role models who came to their aid in dire circumstances. They decided that’s what they wanted to be.

And now, having volunteered for that duty, they inevitably will have to gaze into the empty eyes of death.Is there any way to prepare for that?

Lt. Jack Long, who’s in charge of police department training, said he tells recruits this: If you have a particular belief system, if you’re already going to a church or synagogue or whatever, keep going. Don’t quit when you become a law enforcement officer. Don’t become so jaded that you lose faith.

Witnessing the cruelty of which others are capable can lead to hopelessness. To carry on, you can’t succumb to the belief that life is meaningless.

In the book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” author Viktor Frankl, who was among the prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote that those who survived found a reason to live. They lived to be reunited with someone they loved or to tell what they had witnessed, Even in a death camp, life had a purpose.

Frankl quoted philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

Ultimately, we each must find life’s meaning. If our chosen path brings us face-to-face with a corpse, then we must look into its empty eyes and see beyond the darkness.

And move on.