Do you remember what it’s like to say goodbye to your dad when he’d leave for work?
My earliest memory of this ritual was when I was 3 years old. My pants were a checkered pink-and-white pattern, and I had on a complementary pink sweatshirt. I threw my little arms around my dad dressed in his police uniform and I squeezed him as tightly as I could ― not because I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again, but because I loved him so much and I missed him while he was at work. To me, he was a superhero going off to save the world every time he walked out our front door.
During those moments, I also watched my mom hug him tightly. As the spouse of a New York police officer, she didn’t have a little girl’s sunny faith in the future. She feared for his safety every single shift. The thought of a criminal taking him away from his two daughters was always in the back of her mind.
What my mom didn’t realize, though, is that the real enemy my dad faced wasn’t a criminal. It was the secret, stigmatized and crippling mental illness that he held deep within himself.
My father, Joseph DiPalma Jr., died by suicide on April 23, 2010, one week after my 14th birthday. He was my hero, my advocate, my helping hand, my motivator and my greatest teacher. I wanted to be just like him — courageous, bold, funny, intelligent and, above all, kind. That day, like so many others who have lost loved ones to suicide, I became obsessed with a new question: Why? The truth is that not even the most brilliant psychologist in the world would be able to give me an answer.
To me, my father was the kind of dad that everyone would envy ― the reliable breadwinner of the family and the best giver of bearhugs. My family and I never thought he was struggling. I can still hear him say, “Goodnight, Brooke Marie,” when he checked my bedroom each night. I can still hear the sound of his dress shoes walking across the hardwood floor when he came home after a long day of work and his voice when he asked what homework I had or what grade I got on my earth science or algebra test. And I can still hear him and my mom talking in their bedroom the night before he passed away.
To the outside world, nothing was wrong. He was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a godfather, a former cop, a volunteer firefighter, a community member and so much more, yet on the inside he didn’t see this. I hate to think that he felt alone, that he felt he’d fallen short of the expectations he set for himself and those he thought others had for him.
At the time of my father’s death, he was 49, just two months short of his 50th birthday. He was unemployed after falling victim to the 2008 economic downturn. Nine years earlier, he had retired from the New York City Police Department, to which he had given 18 years, the majority of his adult life. My father decided to leave the force on his own terms in January 2001. I can recall him saying, “You put your time in and then you leave.”
Afterward, I think he wished he hadn’t retired so soon. The job was stable and recession-proof, and had he stayed, he might have found a new direction there (his last post was as a crime prevention specialist). But he couldn’t foresee what was to come.
Eight months after my dad retired, two hijacked planes crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. If my dad had still been an active police officer, he might have been there that terrible day. Sometimes I think he regretted that he wasn’t; all of his friends were. As a retired cop, my dad held on to that macho male mentality, staying strong and tough despite what he had seen, whom he had lost and how he felt about it all. There was no time for tears, no time to express any sense of survivor’s guilt. I never thought he was suicidal.
My dad always beamed with joy as he recalled his time with the NYPD, especially with his old pals of the NYPD Columbia Association. Those individuals knew what he knew, had seen what he saw, as former first responders to homicides, sexual assaults, fires and robberies. With them, he could recall happier times too.
From what I’ve learned, when my dad left the police force, there was a physical examination but no mental health examination and no debriefing. He just left. And after 18 years on the job, he never heard from the NYPD again.
Since this tragedy struck my family, I’ve asked myself why he decided to leave us. From personal research, conferences and the occasional TedTalk, I can tell you some of the warning signs of suicide, but the reality is that they look different with different people. I wish I noticed that he wasn’t sleeping as much; I wish I noticed that he felt the pressure of the outside world on the internet. But I can’t blame myself for not realizing, nor can anyone else who lost a loved one to suicide. His brown eyes still sparkled when he watched me host my eighth-grade talent show only weeks before he passed away. And despite the fact that he had recently lost his job, he still celebrated my 14th birthday to the fullest.
In trying to find answers, I’ve searched for information regarding the mental health of cops. If my dad struggled with everyday life after retirement, others both active duty and retired must feel the same. I discovered a harsh reality: In 2019 so far, at least nine active NYPD officers have lost their lives to suicide.
Across the United States, there have been at least 122 law enforcement suicides, including retired officers. That’s on course to pass last year’s total. In 2018, at least 159 officers took their own lives, surpassing the number of line-of-duty deaths. In 2017, 140 active officers died by suicide, compared to 129 who were killed in the line of duty.
And even though the rates for suicide loss are higher among active officers, their retired brethren still suffer psychological distress as well. I have yet to locate a completely up-to-date record of how many retired NYPD officers have died by suicide, but the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. reports that at least 24 retired officers have died by suicide nationwide so far this year (their data is gathered on a “feel free to give info” basis).
I wonder if these officers, like my father, were too good at holding their raw emotions inside. Many officers are reluctant to share their pain with a psychologist or a partner. They may fear being judged as unable to handle the pressure of the job, and I imagine they don’t want to become part of the “rubber-gun squad,” a nickname given to officers who have had their gun taken away for some reason and been assigned to a desk position until the NYPD feels the officer is ready to get back out there. That culture sticks with them beyond the line of duty.
The NYPD is one of the oldest and largest municipal police departments in the United States. My grandfather was a member of the Carabinieri in Italy, and my father wanted to join the NYPD his entire life.
I’m 23 years old now and I have moved into New York City from Long Island. When I pictured myself living and working here, I thought he’d show me the subway lines and how to hail a taxi. I thought he’d tell me where the best places are to get a late-night snack and coffee at 5 a.m. I imagined that he’d proudly show off his retired Police Benevolent Association badge, as he often did, and the city would embrace me based off his stature, just like it had embraced him so many years ago.
In the absence of all that my dad was supposed to teach me, my heart feels heavy when I pass a cop in uniform inside the subway, on the platform, in the park or in a police car.
Whenever I see a police officer, I try to work up the courage to say thank you. Deep within me, I hope this small start will lead to big change. Maybe if more people said thank you, one more cop would feel a little less lonely, a little more valued. I want to say to all the officers what I never got the chance to tell my dad ― that it’s OK to not be OK.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Do you remember what it’s like to say goodbye to your dad when he’d leave for work?