Grieving Behind the Badge By Peggy Sweeney Rainone
The headlines report the grim news of yet another “fallen hero”, the death of a law enforcement officer or firefighter 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 unmerciful demon—fire. Most civilians half-heartedly 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 happening is, for them, just words on a page. Their lives will not be changed by this tragedy. But 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 and 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, death of a loved one, or even geographical relocation—there is grief and mourning. Grief is an individual’s feelings and thoughts following a loss. 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, like crying, to these feelings. For example, even a small loss experience, such as, a rained-out ballgame or a broken promise, can cause grief. We are saddened, angry, or disappointed at the outcome. We, unwillingly at times, must surrender control of a situation to unforeseen circumstances or to another person. Grief and mourning are normal, healthy responses. Every one of us journeys through grief in our own way and on our own time schedule. To expect anything different is an impossibility.
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 a mere 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 personal life stresses will also influence our grieving.
When someone dies suddenly—auto accident, heart attack, or line of duty death—we experience immediate grief. There is no chance for us to say good-bye, make amends for past indiscretions, or tell the deceased the depth of our love. 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 grief process may be complicated by various everyday problems like job-related stress, personal health issues, financial worries, caring for an invalid parent, or coping with a troubling youth. These distractions can influence our ability to focus on our grieving causing us to 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, something—a song, a memory, a special holiday—will plunge you into 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. Keeping a journal of your thoughts and experiences will aid you in realizing your progress in healing and your reinvestments 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. Reading is another good source of learning and healing. Several good books on grief include: · Don’t Take My Grief Away by Doug Manning · Widowed by Dr. Joyce Brothers · The Bereaved Parent by Harriett Schiff · When Parents Die by Edward P. Myers
Do children grieve? Many people believe that children are resilient and because they appear to continue their normal behaviors—playing, wanting to be with their peers, or even misbehaving—this person’s death has not made an impact on their lives. Do not be deceived. Children, even as young as toddlers, are affected and do grieve. It is important to continue their normal routine as much as possible. They will need even more tender, loving care. Although 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 of adolescents and teens who 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 not be afraid to reach out and help one another.
Last, but certainly not forgotten, is the grief and pain felt by the officer’s or firefighter’s other “family”; the men and women who worked side-by-side with those who died. They experience a grief that few civilians truly understand. A line of duty death impacts the agency or department to its very core. The traumatic event may cause nightmares, anxiety, anger or guilt. It is important that these survivors are provided an outlet to express their feelings, preferably a debriefing or regular support group meetings. Suppressing grief may cause them to doubt their self-worth as a community servant or, worse yet, question whether anyone appreciates the risks they take and the need they have to be the professional they are.
There are many lessons to be learned on the journey through grief. Our lives are like a tapestry woven over time with events and memories of people who have touched our lives. Some tapestries are simple, while others are intricate and sewn with many colors; each a unique masterpiece. The tapestry you continue to weave will reflect your individual pain and sadness, loneliness and longing, love and memories.
This special hero has touched many lives and in their living and dying they have shared their gifts and talents and have taught us to value life. Focus on the positive aspects of their life. Take these memories and become a more warm, loving, and caring person. Reach out to those less fortunate or who may be hurting emotionally and share with them all you have 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.
Peggy is founder and president of HUGS (How to Understand Grief Seminars), a volunteer firefighter, mortician, and bereavement educator. She develops and facilitates workshops on coping with loss and trauma for professionals and families. Grieving Behind the Badge is a training program she has designed specifically for public safety and emergency response professionals. Peggy is also the founder of Halo of Love, a support group for bereaved parents, and CHAT (Children Healing After Trauma), an educational program for children, school counselors, and educators. You may contact her through her website at: http://www.emergency-world.com/hugs