Coping with the Death of a Friend and Co-Worker


by Peggy Sweeney

Dear Peggy, I am an EMT. Two weeks ago, our department lost a dear friend and co-worker as the result of a car accident. In addition to this loss, our department was called out to the accident and had to deal with pulling this friend out of the car. I was not on duty at the time and so I missed the call. What is bothering me is that I feel guilty for letting my colleagues and this young man down for not being there. Also, this has reduced my confidence for dealing with accident calls. I know that it will take time to rebuild it. I guess I just needed to talk to someone. Thank you.

Dear Friend, I extend my sympathies to you and the members of your department. The death of your friend and co-worker has, no doubt, had an emotional impact on everyone. In one sense, it is like having a member of your family die.

Your feelings of letting your department down are very normal. You are not just men a women who work together, but rather you are more like brothers and sisters in a very close-knit family. You share moments of happiness and sadness. You work together as a team saving lives and property. Each of you knows that the others will always be there for assistance, no matter what the circumstance. In some cases, I would guess you are closer to these men and women then you are to members of your own family. Believe me, your colleagues are not disappointed in you!

It is not unusual to feel guilty that you were not present on the day of this tragedy. However, you and the other members of the department must remember that each one of you has commitments and responsibilities separate from your department. You have wives or husbands, children, parents, and others who are very important in your life. These loved ones and friends rely on you every day. We do have a life outside of the ambulance service or fire department. Unfortunately, many dedicated professionals forget this. Moreover, it is important for your mental wellbeing to enjoy time away from the day in, day out traumas and stressors that you have at work. Everyone needs outside interests.

I hope that you and your colleagues were able to participate in a critical incident debriefing,or in the least, had the availability of a chaplain to help you process the incident. If not, you may want to consider these avenues of help. The death of a co-worker and friend is very traumatic. Your grief may be more intense because he died suddenly and tragically. The fact that your department responded to the call and had to extricate his body further complicates your grief. Each one of these elements alone can be difficult to deal with. When they are combined, your grief may be overwhelming and out of control. Asking for help from others is not a sign of weakness.

We often question whether we made the right decision regarding our choices for patient care or the decisions we made on the fire ground. How often have you replayed a particular call in your mind in an effort to determine if the options may have been wrong or should have been done differently; especially when a call ended unfavorably to your expectations or desires?

First responders question themselves on a regular basis. We struggle with thoughts of “what if” or “if only.” This is a normal, healthy response. It is important to remember that no matter how hard we try to rectify a situation or turn an unpleasant state of affairs into something positive, life happens. We must, at times, relinquish a situation to elements or events outside of our control. This in no way detracts from our professional ability.

I hope that I have offered some comfort and insight into your questions. If I can be of further help to you, your department, or the family of the firefighter who died, please do not hesitate to contact me. My door is always open.

Stay safe, Peggy

Peggy Sweeney
Peggy Sweeney

About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is the founder and president of The Sweeney Alliance, and editor of the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters. Since 1997, she has taught her Grieving Behind the Badge program for first responders and their families. Peggy is a mortician and bereavement educator, a firefighter (non-active) and secretary of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department, and a former EMT-B. Peggy has been awarded certifications in Bereavement Trauma and Emergency Crisis Response from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. You may contact Peggy through her email peggy@sweeneyalliance.org

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