It is not unusual or abnormal for people in the emergency response community to experience many different emotions and feelings in their day-to-day lives. The traumatic calls they respond to are, at times, overwhelming. Research shows that many of these professionals experience nightmares, depression, substance abuse, or strained relationships with family members or friends as a result of recurring trauma and the grief it causes.
Grief touches our lives following many different types of loss. At times, it may shake the foundation of our very existence causing us to question our spiritual beliefs. Grief releases many emotions we would rather not feel: deep pain, overwhelming sadness, emptiness, guilt, anger, or a sense of failure. Everyone responds to grief differently. No two people will react to a shared grief experience the same way.
The lessons you learned as a child for coping with emotions and feelings will affect your responses as well. If you were taught to suppress your feelings or were discouraged from talking about emotionally charged issues, you will probably have difficulty sharing your thoughts and feelings with others as an adult.
Grieving is necessary to heal the mind and spirit. Grief involves the whole person — the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual self. There is no set of rules that, followed consecutively, will erase the grief. You cannot deal with one emotion or feeling and then move on to the next. You cannot deal with anger or sorrow for a few days and check it off of your list. Rather, you will flow back and forth between some of the same — or previously unacknowledged — emotions and feelings until, after many months or even years, you come to the end of your grief journey. The intensity and duration of your individual grief process correlates to the degree of loss; the more emotionally involved you are with the person or event, the deeper your feelings.
One of the most stressful and traumatic situations faced by firefighters is the death of an infant or young patient. When responding to a call in which a child dies, your reactions to this experience can leave you with a deep sense of sadness. You may be angry if the child was a victim of abuse, suicide, or homicide. At times, you may question your ability as a rescuer or medical caregiver.
Many factors determine your personal reactions and feelings regarding the death of a child including your previous experiences with loss. For example, if you are a bereaved parent, you will identify with the emotional pain felt by the child’s parents more fully than colleagues who have not had this experience.
Furthermore, if you live and work in a small community — such as the firefighters in Newtown, Conn. — you may know the child or children involved in the incident. The sheer terror of a call such as this will stay with you for a lifetime.
Worse yet, is if you come upon a scene in which your child has been injured or has died.
It is important to remember that your responses to grief, both professional and personal, are normal, natural, and not a sign of weakness. Following the death of a young patient, your feelings may be similar to the grief that you felt after a family member or close friend died. Do not be ashamed of these feelings. Celebrate the goodness that is you and the many lives you have touched. Grief is the price you pay for being a dedicated and caring professional.
Peggy Sweeney is a bereavement educator and the president of The Sweeney Alliance. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and trauma including the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. Peggy is editor of a monthly newsletter by the same name. Peggy is a member of the Texas Line of Duty Death Task Force, secretary of the Comfort (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department, and a former EMT-B.