By Samantha Balaban and James Doubek
Nicole Rikard had recently married Sgt. John Rikard of the Asheville Police Department in North Carolina. He had an 8-year-old son, Tucker, from a previous marriage. From the time Nicole and John started dating, they had scarcely been apart.
Soon after they married, however, Nicole had to go to Florida for some work training -- she was a crime scene investigator in the same police department. John worked an overnight shift and would call her when he woke up to check in.
But one day, John wasn't answering her texts. Nicole heard from a colleague that he hadn't shown up for work either.
She started to panic, imagining multiple scenarios. For starters, she thought he could have had a heart attack and died, like John's father did. John had had a hip replacement, so she worried he could have fallen down the stairs. John was a recovering alcoholic, and though she "had never met him intoxicated," she was concerned he could have relapsed and been on a bender at home. He was having trouble sleeping; she wondered whether he could have accidentally overdosed by mixing a sleep medicine with another medicine.
Stuck hundreds of miles away in Florida, Nicole got on the phone with John's colleagues in Asheville. She told the police to break into their house.
Thirty-six agonizing minutes went by. Nicole was vomiting in the shower.
She finally got a phone call from one of John's lieutenants.
"Well, John is gone. And it appears to be self-inflicted," the lieutenant told her.
"And I said, 'What the f*** are you talking about?' "
Nicole says that the night before, she and John had talked about their weekend plans. They had also made Christmas plans. He was looking forward to going to a concert featuring his favorite band and getting another tattoo.
John Rikard was 38 years old when he died by suicide.
"I would not survive without them"
That was in December 2015. Three-and-a-half years later, it was Nicole who was getting a tattoo, commemorating her bond with new friends, united by their shared grief.
Just like Nicole, Kristen Clifford, Erin Gibson and Melissa Swailes were all married to officers who killed themselves.
They live in different parts of the country and met on the Internet. Last month in Washington, D.C., they met in person for the first time.
"I would not survive without them," Clifford says. "They are my lifeline."
"We talk daily. Twenty, 30 times a day. And we have for the past two years," Swailes says. "We have gotten each other through so much. I would not be here alive right now if I didn't have these women."
Suicide has been increasing in the U.S. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans killed themselves. Rates went up by more than 30%between 1999 and 2017.
The danger is particularly acute for law enforcement officers. Studies andpersonal stories say police and firefighters' persistent exposure to death and trauma can put them at increased risk of post-traumatic stress and depression.
While the suicide rate in the U.S. was 14 per 100,000 in 2017, that number is closer to 18 for members of law enforcement.
Police are more likely to die of suicide than they are to be killed by an assailant.
Just in the past week, the police department in New York City was rocked by two suicides of veteran officers in 24 hours.
At least 87 officers have died by suicide this year, according to the organization Blue H.E.L.P., which tracks police suicides. The group says at least 167 officers died by suicide last year.
But police say there's a stigma attached to talking about mental health problems.
The four widows of police suicide shared their stories with NPR.
Kristen Clifford's husband was Officer Steve Clifford of the Nassau County Police Department in New York. They had been married for about seven months and had just gotten a puppy. Kristen says they looked forward to having children. One day in May 2017, he wasn't responding to her texts, so she drove home.
"I went inside and I saw a bunch of notes. His police identification, his driver's license, everything laid out very neatly, methodically. ... And I ran down the hallway to our bedroom and the door was closed. And there was a note on it that said, 'I did it. Do not enter. Call 911.' "
Kristen says she's grateful she didn't open the door. "He was protecting me up until the very end."
Steve Clifford was 35 years old.
Melissa Swailes and David Swailes were dating as early as high school. They had four sons. David was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for almost 10 years. On their youngest son's second birthday on Feb. 26, Melissa came home and found her husband behind their bathroom door.
"I remember just screaming over and over. 'I can't. I can't. I can't,' " she says. "I just couldn't accept that what I was seeing was reality."
That was 2016.
"That haunts me, that image of seeing the person that you love more than anything, the father of your children, your high school sweetheart, somebody you grew up with," she says. "To see that, I think is probably the most horrific thing anybody could ever see in their life."
David Swailes was 36 years old.
Erin Gibson was married to Sgt. Clint Gibson, of the Liberty Lake, Wash., police department. They, too, were high school sweethearts. They had four children and were married for nearly 20 years.
She says stress from Clint's job was getting to him. He turned to alcohol. "There was trouble in the marriage because he was drinking a lot at the end," she says.
In April 2014, after having left Clint a week before, Erin was at her parents' house when two chaplains showed up.
"They told me, 'Your husband is dead.' And I couldn't believe it. That didn't even register in my mind that Clint was dead," she says. "It made no sense to me. ... I just remember screaming. And nothing makes sense after that."
Clint Gibson was 41 years old.
All four women say their husbands were worn down after years on the police force.
"You're showing up to people's worst days of their lives," Melissa Swailes says. "Call after call after call. And you have to go from one call to the next, pretending like you weren't affected that you just saw a child murdered or a homicide or you were just in a high-speed pursuit, or a shooting. And then go to the next call as if it didn't affect you."
Melissa says David also had symptoms of post-traumatic stress from his time in the U.S. Navy.
Erin says her husband was under added stress in the years before his death. He had been named in a lawsuit against the city of Liberty Lake, and it went to federal court.
"And this ate him alive. So whenever he was home he was drinking and he drank, and he drank, and he drank, until he passed out. And I have memories of him pacing the floors just pacing, pacing, pacing, back and forth. And it was frightening."
Clint Gibson was cleared of wrongdoing in the incident, but he couldn't let it go, she says.
The women say the day-to-day strain of being a police officer was also compounded by the national news about police shootings of unarmed black men; police know they are not popular in many communities, and the shootings have put their actions under constant scrutiny.
Nicole says her husband would see the news and get upset.
"Him being a 6-foot plus, almost 300-pound white guy. Bald head. Tattoos. The cauliflower ears from wrestling and stuff. And he was the typical person that was public enemy No. 1."
Melissa says her husband got a body camera before it was required and would watch the videos at night, reliving the day all over again.
"That man slowly became a different person because of the work," she says. "That day-to-day interaction of people yelling at him and calling him names and throwing things at him."
Police departments do have resources for officers who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Nicole says her husband sought help in the past for alcoholism. He completed a 30-day treatment program and had spoken publicly about his struggles.
But Melissa had a different experience when she suggested that her husband seek help.
"He looked at me and said, 'Are you crazy? If I go to them, not only could I lose my job, I'm going to never promote. They're going to bench me. Not to mention my colleagues, my brothers, are going to look at me as a liability. Nobody's going to want to work with me.' "
They say their husbands had to put on masks to go to work.
Kristen says Steve Clifford "was the jokester, he was the happy one." As far as she knew, he loved his job. She had no idea he was having any problems.
She says a couple days before he died, he did express how he was feeling. But he didn't know who he could ask for help. He thought he might lose his job if his superiors knew he was struggling mentally.
Making it OK to reach out
It's a common fear among police officers, says Steve Casstevens, police chief in Buffalo Grove, Ill., and vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Many officers say they don't feel comfortable coming forward, he says. They may think that their departments would not support them or that there may not be support programs in place. "The big issue that we hear is the stigma of a police officer asking for help."
Casstevens says his goal is to reduce that stigma and develop ways for officers to reach out.
"It comes down to courageous leadership from the top," he says. Police chiefs need to send the message that it's OK to ask for help and outline how to do it.
"Either through a peer support group, or through a police social worker or through a variety of different avenues that demonstrate that we take this topic seriously and there is help available," Casstevens says.
The women hope that by speaking openly about their husbands, they can help remove some of the stigma and encourage police officers to seek regular mental counseling.
Melissa says it should be routine, like officers regularly training with firearms. "That's just a normal thing. And it's not because you're not fit for duty. It's just because it needs to become a normal part of their culture."
Melissa says she now receives mental health services from the police department -- but says David should have been the one getting counseling.
"Best widow friends"
Kristen, Erin, Nicole and Melissa came to Washington, D.C., to go to a dinner hosted by Blue H.E.L.P. for the families of law enforcement officers who died by suicide.
But before showing up for the event, the women had one thing they needed to take care of. It was the first time they had all been in the same place, and they wanted to commemorate the occasion.
So they hopped into a car and headed to a tattoo parlor.
Erin, who had never gotten a tattoo before, threw up twice. Melissa joked that she took one for the team.
But they left with matching dandelion tattoos on their arms.
Each dandelion had four wisps, one for each of the four "best widow friends."
And then they ate pizza.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Espanol: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.