Fallen heroes

Members of the Howard County police carry the wreath into the ceremony for police officers who have died while on duty in Howard County. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / May 3, 2012)

Sue Nickerson remembers driving west across the Bay Bridge, steeling herself for another ceremony held to honor her son and the hundreds of other Maryland police officers and firefighters who have died in the line of duty.

By then, five years had passed since that night in 2001 when 25-year-old Michael Nickerson, an officer with the Centreville Police Department, was shot and killed while responding to a call. She had learned to tolerate the flood of painful memories, and as the annual Fallen Heroes Day memorial approached, she resolved to help others who were new to their grief.

"I have to reach out to other families," she said. "Michael would want that."

She decided before she reached the toll booth that she would organize a survivors' retreat at a waterside resort on the Eastern Shore. Nickerson would give families a chance to connect and prepare for May, a difficult month filled with memorial services, she said.

At the fifth annual gathering this year, the Cambridge resort drew about 30 members of the Hunter family, grieving the loss of Maryland State Trooper 1st Class Shaft S. Hunter, who died nearly a year ago when his cruiser slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer stopped on Interstate 95.

No one wants the tragic distinction needed to gain entry to the event, said Princella Hunter, the trooper's mother. But she found support and consolation there.

"They made me feel like it was their child lost as well," she said. "I thought I was asking too much with such a large family. But they embraced us all."

The retreats have helped families brace themselves for the tributes that accompany Fallen Heroes Day, National Police Week and other commemorations traditionally held in May.

"It can be overwhelming and so emotionally hard, especially with no one to guide you," Nickerson said.

The retreat, set for a weekend in March, allows families to share, remember and prepare, she said. The Maryland chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors — or COPS — sponsors the retreat.

Nickerson, the mother and grandmother of state troopers and the president of Maryland COPS, said families only have to show up for the retreat. COPS organizes several fundraisers — golf and fishing tournaments and a motorcycle rally — to pay all the costs of the retreats, which can be as much as $20,000, she said.

"We take them away for a weekend," Nickerson said. "We build in children's activities, meals, counseling and just time to get together."

Hunter invited her son's six children, his brothers and many members of their extended family to the retreat. She recalled seeing her eldest granddaughter tearful at the beginning of the weekend but later dancing with her siblings.

Paula Jensen met Nickerson after her son, Prince George's County police Cpl. Thomas P. Jensen, died in an accident two years ago. The retreat helped Jensen and her husband realize that others were going through similar grief.

"Your emotions run the gamut," Jensen said. "Sue just guided us along and told us what to expect. There was such camaraderie, and we knew those feelings of loss are not just ours."

Nickerson can still recall the numbness that comes with grief, but, she said, "The memorials and the recognition of so many others helps you wake up slowly from the terrible thing that has happened to you."

She encounters fellow survivors under the most tragic circumstances and seems to have an intrinsic understanding of how to help, said Hunter.

"After the accident, Sue immediately went to my son's home," Hunter said. "To say that she has been a tremendous support throughout this ordeal would be an understatement."

When Nickerson attended her first Fallen Heroes service, she said felt as if she was reliving her son's funeral. Now, she said, she has found in it a calming peace.

"I cried my way through that first one," she said. "Now I go through it with pride, the same pride Michael had when he wore that badge. … We are not victims. We are survivors."

Hunter is approaching the ceremony with the same sentiment.

"It gives me a chance to say I miss my son badly, but I am also so proud of him," Hunter said. "It is my way to give back to his memory."

For the Hunters, the memorials began Thursday as Howard County paid its annual tribute to fallen officers, who now number seven. It continued Friday at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

"In my mind, this is our memorial, Maryland's memorial for all the first responders, no matter what badge they wore," Nickerson said. "We will never forget, and these memorials let us know many others won't ever forget."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ellie Kahn contributed to this article.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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