by Peggy Sweeney
Editor’s Note: Although written for those in the fire service, you may apply the principles to all professions.
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, partners, 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 hearts. Many of them wonder why the warm, loving, and carefree person they married does not come home like that anymore.
I will tell you that I know what many of you fear: your spouse or partner 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 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 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 They may be withdrawn and bad-tempered.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 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 lived 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 a human being. Keep in mind that they have no superpowers. 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 addiction, mental illness including depression, post-traumatic stress (PTS), and in some instances, violent behavior, or thoughts of suicide. Their department may not offer emotional support through instructional programs on these issues. In many instances, the department does not provide a reputable mental health professional trained in dealing with trauma 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 yourself. 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 layout 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 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 also find it helpful to speak with a counselor.
This is a website where you can search for professionals in your area trained to treat post-traumatic stress (PTS), addiction, and so forth.
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.
Stigma and the Elephant in The Room, To the Point of No Return and Back
EMDR: A Therapy Session to Deal with a Problematic Incident
Also an extensive booklist is available here. Choose a book or two and read. Highlight sentences that are relevant to your partner. Encourage them to read the book(s) so you can discuss your concerns.
We must take a PROACTIVE role in helping our firefighters and all emergency first responders, police and correctional officers and 911 Dispatchers 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.
About the Author: Peggy Sweeney began her career as a mortician and bereavement educator thirty years ago. Since 1990, Peggy has developed and taught countless workshops on coping with traumatic loss and grief for professionals and families including the Grieving Behind the Badge program for public safety officers, emergency response professionals, and their families. She has hosted monthly support groups for grieving adults and teens as well as bereaved parents.
Peggy also served her various hometowns as a firefighter, EMT-B, and Hospice volunteer. She has devoted her time and efforts to making a positive change in the lives of others and reducing the number of suicides that are becoming all too common in the military and first responder communities. She was humbled to receive the Firefighter of the Year award from her Texas fire department.
You may contact Peggy if you have a question, would like to write an article, or wish to suggest a topic of interest. email@example.com