There is No Superman! – The Role of the Spouse in the Fire Service


by Peggy Sweeney
The Sweeney Alliance

peggycvfd300xOver the years, I have been very fortunate to not only instruct firefighters, but many of their wives or partners as well. When I would ask them for comments, questions, or feedback, I usually would receive little or no response. Understandably! Wives [and husbands] are very reluctant to talk in front of their spouse about their feelings, their fears, or what is in their hearts. Many spouses wonder why the warm, loving, and carefree person they married does not come home in the same jovial mood anymore.

I know what many of you fear: that your spouse or partner may be struggling mentally and emotionally with the traumas of their job. You realize that what they see, hear, taste, and feel on a recurring basis is beginning to play a major role in how they view life, living, and their job. When the call goes well, life is good! When their best efforts to save a life or protect property from ruin do not end positively, it is a BAD DAY!

Some of you may have witnessed THE CHANGE. Your superhero does not always return home with their superman costume intact. It’s tattered and torn. They try to make light of their day, but you can see the pain and stress in their eyes. You reach out to give a welcome home hug and they pull away. They may be withdrawn and bad-tempered. Often, they find comfort in alcohol, the internet, or gambling rather than their family. The jovial personality is almost nonexistent. Have I begun to paint a picture of your relationship?

Becoming a firefighter, in my opinion, is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your community. It takes a very special person to take on the responsibilities to protect and serve. Many of you have seen the brotherhood that is fire service; a special bond between firefighters that is not taken lightly. What many people fail to remember, because of their seemingly herculean rescues, is that this larger-than-life person is human. There are no super powers. There is no invisible, life-protecting armor that guarantees that they will return home unscathed—mentally, emotionally, or physically—from their duties. They are vulnerable to addictions, mental illness (including depression), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and, in some instances, violent behavior. At a loss for productive ways to cope with the tragedies they witness, some entertain thoughts of suicide as a way to end the persistent emotional pain. Their department may not offer emotional support or training for coping with these issues. You, as his or her partner, are NOT the fairy godmother or Merlin the Magician who waves the magic wand and makes their life better. There is no magic that can erase what they are thinking or feeling.

The good news is that there are steps that you can take to help yourself, your spouse, and your family:

  • Step One: TAKE CARE OF YOU – Eat right, get exercise, and make time every day for yourself and your family. You must keep a positive attitude! 
  • Step Two: HEART-TO-HEART – If you have concerns about your spouse/partner’s mental or emotional state, sit down together and lay out your fears and concerns. Most people squirm in their seats when you get close to touching their feelings and emotions. That’s OK. Hang in there. Your actions will reassure them that you care.
  • Step Three: GET PHYSICAL – Strongly suggest to them that they a complete physical including blood work, stress test, cancer screening, and so on. Strongly encourage a meeting with a mental health professional; preferably a professional who understands the culture of the fire service and is trauma trained. Firefighters, in general, are very reluctant to seek any form of counseling. They are fearful that they will be perceived as weak or, worse yet, will lose their job. Keep in mind that not all mental health professionals are equipped to “treat” a first responder. It may take several visits to different therapists to find the “right fit”. But don’t give up!
  • Step Four: GET EDUCATED – if you do nothing else today, check out these two websites which offer valuable information. Don’t skim – READ EVERYTHING! Share this information with your spouse or print out the important things if they are not computer friendly:
  1. Grieving Behind the Badge blog – read every article, especially those under the headings: Addiction, Post Traumatic Stress, and Suicide: Let’s Talk It.  Subscribe to our newsletter!
  2. Sober Coach Don – Don Prince is a personal friend of mine. As a former firefighter, Don offers help to first responders and their families in the area of addiction and recovery. Read his story here

There is no Superman in your home. Superman only lives on the big screen and in the minds of children. If you remove this façade, you will see the real duties they perform as a firefighter. You are not alone in your struggles to help with their daily traumas. Do your homework and use the information made available here and other websites. Study it and share everything with your spouse. If you have questions, ASK! I am as close as an email, peggy@sweeneyalliance.org or phone call, 830-377-7389. If I do not have the answer, I will direct you to someone who does.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney 2012. All rights reserved. 

About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is founder and executive director of the Sweeney Alliance, a non-profit company. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and traumatic stress including the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals and their families. Peggy has written numerous award-winning articles and is the editor of the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters. She is a mortician and bereavement educator, a former member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department, and a former EMT-B. Peggy is the recipient of the 2014 Firefighter of the Year award from her department for her efforts in helping her brother firefighters cope with grief and the emotional traumas of their job.