by Peggy Sweeney
The Sweeney Alliance
Local newspaper headlines report the sad news of another fallen hero. The tragic death of a brave firefighter or police officer who has died in the line of duty. A dedicated professional who sacrificed his or her life that others may live or that homes and property would be saved from the ravages of fire. Most people halfheartedly acknowledge the event while searching for more significant information relating to their personal lives; a baseball score, stock market figures, want ads, or horoscopes. This newsworthy article is often overlooked by the casual reader. Civilians cannot relate to this type of tragedy nor can they comprehend the depth of grief and pain that every member in the fire service feels. Their lives will not be changed by this tragedy. Unfortunately, this is not true for the family and co-workers of this fallen hero. Life as they knew it will never be the same again. Emotions run rampant and their seemingly normal lives spiral into a frightening and dark abyss where pain, loneliness, and grief are constant companions. Surviving this personal tragedy is, at times, almost unbearable. How does one survive? What lessons can be learned from these experiences?
Before we can learn to cope with pain and grief, we must first understand why we feel and respond to traumatic events as we do. In any loss (divorce, loss of a friendship or job, or geographical relocation), there is grief and mourning. Grief is the emotional, physical, mental, and even spiritual responses human beings experience when their dreams and plans for life take an unexpected turn. Mourning is our outward expression (such as crying) to these feelings. A small loss experience such as a rained out ballgame or a broken promise can cause grief. We are disappointed, saddened, or angry at the outcome. We unwillingly must surrender control of a situation to unforeseen circumstances or to another person. Grief and mourning are normal, healthy responses. Each one of us journeys through grief in our own way and on our own time schedule.
When someone dies, our response to this loss is equal to our relationship with this person. The stronger the emotional bond, the more intense the grief reactions. To illustrate, the death of an acquaintance pales in comparison to the death of a much loved family member, friend, or co-worker. In addition, the manner of death (sudden or anticipated) and our personal life stressors will also influence our grieving.
When our loved one dies suddenly (auto accident, heart attack, line of duty death), we experience immediate grief. There is no time for goodbyes. We cannot tell them we love them, let them know how much we value their friendship, or ask forgiveness. In contrast, when a loved one dies from a long-term illness or injury (anticipated death) we may have had the opportunity to prepare for the loss. This is not to say that we will not grieve following an anticipated death but rather that our length of grieving and the extent of our pain may be lessened somewhat because we have expressed our thoughts and vocalized our love and have helped the one who is dying accept their death and put closure to their life. Furthermore, our grieving process may be complicated by various everyday problems like job-related stress, family struggles (such as divorce), financial worries, or personal health issues. These distractions can greatly influence our ability to focus on our grieving which can delay or even suppress the grieving process.
Healing grief is not an easy task. Your grief journey is like a roller coaster ride. Just when you think you are doing better, a memory or a special event in your life will hurl you into the depths of despair. Rejoice in the good moments and days you have. They will help you survive the more painful and lonely ones. Surviving a loss takes a very long time; many months or even years. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy, and exercise. A journal of your thoughts and experiences will mark your progress in healing and your re-investments in life and living. It’s ok to cry. This is not a sign of weakness. You are not going crazy. You are very normal.
Do children grieve? Many people believe that children are resilient. When someone they love dies, they may continue their normal behaviors (playing, interacting with their peers, or even misbehaving) in spite of this person’s death. It may appear that this death has not made an impact on their lives. Do not be deceived. Children, even toddlers, are affected and do grieve. It is important to continue their normal routine as much as possible. They will need tender, loving care. While it may seem that they are adjusting to life after the funeral, it is imperative to keep the lines of communication open. Do not be afraid to share your feelings and frustrations with them. Don’t shy away from talking about the deceased person or asking the child how they are feeling. Be aware that some adolescents and teens may experiment with drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with their grief and emotional pain. A family that has suffered the devastation of loss must reach out and help one another.
A line of duty death impacts the life of every member of the department as well as their families. It is imperative that they are given information about grief and how to cope with the pain and suffering it creates. The tragic event may trigger nightmares, anxiety, anger, or guilt. It is very important to their physical health and emotional well-being that these men and women are provided with an outlet to express their feelings. As a result of this life-altering event, they may question their self-worth. They may wonder if anyone appreciates the risks they take.
There are many lessons to be learned on the journey through grief. This special hero has touched many lives and in their living and dying they have shared their gifts and talents and have taught us the value of life. Reach out to adults and children who may be hurting emotionally and share with them all you learned from your grief experience. By reinvesting in life and sharing love with others, you will honor this hero who made the ultimate sacrifice. In so doing, they will never be forgotten.
Copyright Peggy Sweeney.
About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is the founder and executive director of the Sweeney Alliance. Since 1997, she has taught the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency responders and public safety officers and their families. No stranger to grief, Peggy is a bereaved mother and has grieved the death of a much-loved family member following his suicide. Peggy has written numerous articles on grief, has hosted support groups for bereaved parents, spouses and teens and has counseled the bereaved in both group and individual settings. With her expertise as a bereavement educator, combined with her experiences as a mortician, firefighter and EMT, she brings a unique and noteworthy presence to each and every situation. Peggy is the recipient of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department 2014 Firefighter of the Year award.
Read Peggy’s other articles here