by Peggy Sweeney
Over the years, I have been very fortunate to not only instruct firefighters on coping with traumatic loss and grief, but many of their wives and family members as well. When I would ask them for comments, questions or feedback, I usually got little or no response. Understandably, because spouses are very reluctant to talk in front of their firefighters about their feelings, their fears, or what is in their heart. Many of them wonder why the warm, loving and carefree person they married does not come home like that anymore.
I know what many of you fear: your spouse, partner or family member may be struggling mentally and emotionally with the traumas of his or her job. You realize that what they see, hear and feel on a recurring basis is beginning to play a major roll 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 noticed that your heroes do 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 hurt. 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 They may be withdrawn and bad-tempered.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 rather than family. Their 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 and sisterhood that is the fire service; a special bond 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. Keep in mind that they have 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 addition, mental illness including depression, post-traumatic stress (PTS), and in some instances, violent behavior or thoughts of suicide. Their chief may not offer emotional support through instructional programs on these issues. In many instances, the department does not provide a reputable mental health professional who understands not only these concerns, but the culture that is fire service. You, as his or her partner or spouse, are NOT the fairy godmother or Merlin the magician who waves a magic wand and makes life better. There is no magic that can erase what they are thinking or feeling. The nightmares are real!
The good news is that there are steps you can take to help yourself, your partner and your family.
Step One: Take care of you. Eat right, exercise and take time every day for yourself and your children. You must keep a positive attitude.
Step Two: Heart to heart. If you have concerns about your spouse’s mental or emotional state, sit down together and lay out your fears and concerns. Most people squirm in theirs 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 encourage them to have a thorough physical as well as meeting with a mental health professional. Firefighters, in general, are very reluctant to meet with a counselor or psychiatrist for fear that IF someone in their department learns they are seeking counseling, they will be perceived as weak, or worse yet, will lose their job. Not all mental health professionals are equipped to treat first responders. It may take several visits with different therapists to find the “right fit”. But don’t give up! You may find it helpful to speak with a counselor also.
This is a website where you can search for professionals in your area trained to treat post traumatic stress (PTS), addiction and so forth. Make a call, find out their fees and question their experience working with firefighters. You can remain anonymous in your search.
Step Four: Read. A firefighter from Canada has recently written two profound articles about his post traumatic stress, thoughts of suicide and how EMDR has changed his life. Print both articles, read them and encourage your firefighter to do the same. Discuss them together.
Step Five: Many of our first responders have issues from their childhood/young adulthood that exacerbate their current stressors. Follow along with my Grief Study program. It’s not just about the death of someone, but other issues we cope with from years past. Some of the information in the online program may help you find “clues” that are troubling your spouse. These can be addressed with their therapists as well.
Step Six: Consider joining our closed group on Facebook: Firefighter Wives Discussion. Open to all wives and family members pf firefighters and EMS personnel.
You must take a PROACTIVE role in helping your firefighter, let them know that they are not alone in their struggles, that there IS help available and that suicide is not a choice in coping with their job.
There is no Superman in your home. Superman only lives on the big screen and in the minds of children. If you remove this facade 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 in this article. Study it. Share everything with your spouse. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me.
Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.