Enduring grief: Coping with first responder loss
Firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, though accustomed to death, need to process grief when losing someone close to them
By Lieutenant Brad Bouchillon, Contributor to In Public Safety
There are so many experiences in life that can be described as “beautiful,” from the birth of a child, to the rising and setting of the sun, or falling in love. Unfortunately, there are also many dark moments in life that can be extremely hard to navigate. One of the most difficult experiences that humans face is coping with death. There are many variables affecting how someone handles the grieving process, including how close they were to the deceased, how well they handle death, and the suddenness or cause of death.
Having lost several close family members and a good friend who was a fellow firefighter, I have personally experienced how different the grieving process can be each time you go through it. Losing my friend was probably the hardest, as it was unexpected and we were very close. It took me a long time to recover from that loss, but it taught me that grieving is a necessary and very individual process.
Coping with death in EMS/the fire service
In this line of work, death eventually becomes familiar. Firefighters and EMTs are exposed to death so often in the field that it truly becomes ordinary. Fortunately, there have not been any line-of-duty deaths in my department during my 10 years of employment. However, we have lost two active-duty members and a few retired individuals.
These losses affected everyone in the department differently. The members who had spent more time working alongside the retirees obviously needed more time to grieve than some of us newer employees. The same goes for the active-duty members. A few others and I really struggled with my friend’s passing, but those who had not spent much time with him were hardly affected.
No matter how close we were to the deceased, I believe the simple concept of losing a brother or sister in the fire service still has a deep impact. Similarly to vicarious trauma, I believe there is vicarious grieving. For instance, when the Charleston (Sc.) Fire Department lost nine members, some of our department’s personnel attended the funerals to pay their respects. There were firefighters from all over the country in attendance and not a dry eye in the house.
Grieving is a process
Grieving is difficult for everyone and should be done at one’s own pace. Each individual develops their own way of coping with loss. Grieving is completely healthy, but if not handled properly, can lead to other problems such as depression or social isolation.
As long as unhealthy coping mechanisms such as heavy drinking or self-isolation are avoided, each individual should pursue their path to recovery however they see fit. I recommend communicating with a close friend or family member about what you’re feeling because oftentimes, others don’t understand how much you may have been affected. Losing someone you cared about can create a void, and it helps to have the support of others to help you deal with the loss and emotions you’re feeling.
Along with communication, it can help tremendously to find other positive coping mechanisms. Whether it is taking a walk along the beach, writing poetry to express your emotions, or simply unplugging from life for a few hours, grieving is a self-propelled vessel and as such should be captained by you. Sail it to the harbor of recovery, but avoid the rocks of self-destructive behavior.
About the author
Brad Bouchillon has been working for the City of Statesboro Fire Department for 10 years full-time and has held the rank of lieutenant for 4 years. He has also worked as a lifeguard for Tybee Island Ocean Rescue and as an EMT part-time for Screven County EMS. Brad holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with a specialization in Crisis Counseling. He is also starting his Masters of Arts program in the fall of 2018 in Human Services Counseling with a Crisis Response and Trauma Cognate. He is married to his wife Megan of five years and they have a one-year-old son. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu. To receive more articles like this in your inbox, please sign up for In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.