In little more than a year, Philadelphia police officers have had to repeat the same wrenching ritual over and over - dealing with the bloody crime scenes, the grim hospital vigils, the solemn funeral processions.

Since October 2007, five of their fellow officers have been killed in the line of duty.

"For 13 months, it's been pure hell for the officers," said John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. "We've never experienced anything like this before and hopefully we won't have to experience it again."

When psychologists and counselors met with the rank and file after the deaths, they learned that the officers were not as concerned about their own well-being as their children's. "They're very concerned," said Tom Lamb, the administrator of Law Enforcement Health Benefits, which he likened to a Blue Cross for Philadelphia police officers. "Even at school, there's peer pressure. 'Oh, your father is a cop. Is he going to be killed?' "

For the first time, a police psychologist met yesterday morning with spouses and children of officers to talk about how they've been coping with the stress of the police fatalities.

The session, at the Eighth Police District in the Northeast, was led by Paul DiKun, a psychologist who works with the city's Police and Fire Departments. "A 4-year-old wants to know I'm coming home," he said. "A 14-year-old understands I might not."

DiKun and others said more sessions would be held as needed, and DiKun said he hoped to do a mailing to all police officers' families, addressing some of the questions raised yesterday.

About a dozen parents and children attended the early-morning meeting. The primary concern was how to address children's fears and protect them from the stress experienced by their parents. DiKun told parents that it was best simply to assure younger children that their mother or father would be safe on the job.

If they ask why?

DiKun, whose father was a Philadelphia police officer, suggested a response: "Well, I have you to come home to."

"You can't improve on that answer," he said.

Older children need to be reassured as well, but teenagers realize there are no guarantees. DiKun recommended that parents promise they won't take unnecessary risks but acknowledge that "I can't prevent certain things from happening."

DiKun and others said more attention had been paid in recent years to teaching officers about the stresses of the job and helping them cope. They said Mayor Nutter, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and McNesby had made that a priority.

Since the recent police fatalities began, psychologists have attended more than 180 roll-call meetings in the districts and held "debriefing" sessions with individual officers for hours at a time.

Years ago, officers resisted the idea of accepting help - or even the idea that they needed it. The results were high instances of depression and suicide and lots of turning to the bottle, said Police Capt. Lou Campione, who helped organize yesterday's meeting. "I think we're seeing less of that now. There's more understanding now that they're feeling it and they need help than you had 30 years ago," Campione said. "The stigma has been dispersed."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.