Painting by Dan Sun
“No person was ever honored for what he received.
Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”
~Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the Unite States (1872-1933)
To Live a Life of Service
We choose to live a life of service. For some this means living a life of devotion in a religious or spiritual sense. For others, it means living their life purpose by being of service to others. For police, military, and first-responders, it means to live a devoted life to serving and protecting.
The men and women serving in the capacity of police, military, or first-responder (e.g. search and rescue, peace officers, firefighters, paramedics, park rangers, and emergency medical technicians) commit to a job which is both rewarding and conflicting. No mom or dad wants to miss their child’s birthday or Christmas; however, it is the norm in these jobs. Therefore, it is a life the entire family chooses and accepts.
The remuneration is not over the top by any means. In fact, the income is a living wage and not reflective of the daily risks faced on the job or the value given. The personal reward of serving must outweigh the often dismal conditions, long hours, precious time away from family, and average wage.
Grief for Police, Military, and First-Responders is Unique
The grief journey in these communities is unique because people die on the job. Soldiers killed in action, police officers shot and killed on duty, and first-responders dying in work-related incidents happen every day. Their colleagues impacted by the event are responsible for carrying out protocols and family notifications, but they must also remain at work. For example, when a policer officer is shot and killed, the shooter may be at large and those on duty must find and arrest the suspect. Likewise, if a firefighter is killed…his or her colleagues may still be dealing with a fire and all the aftermath that goes with it. Soldiers killed in the line of duty are part of ongoing casualties; the conflict does not stop because they died.
The funeral is generally a beautiful tribute to the member. There is protocol to follow, flags are flown half-mast, and venues are filled to overflow with uniformed personnel and family and friends. The service is a time to remember the person who died. It is important because it activates a natural support system by bringing everyone together. It also brings the reality of the person’s death into full view. There is no escaping the fact they are not coming back. However, the funeral or memorial service is only a moment in time for those left behind. For the deceased person’s colleagues, it truly is only a moment in time because the next day (if not that same day) the majority of them return to work to carry out their duties as expected. There will be no room for their grief on shift. They will be expected to make decisions and respond to critical situations as they have been trained. Period. In the course of duty it won’t matter that they buried a friend, a brother, a sister, or a respected colleague only hours before.
When the Gatekeeper Dies
The person who died is the family’s “gatekeeper” to an exclusive community (i.e. military community). After their death, the inclusion to this community wanes and may even be denied. It isn’t that the colleagues of their loved one don’t want to include them. The relationship takes on different parameters and the unintended, but natural consequence of the person’s death, is that the deceased person’s family no longer fits within that structure. This isn’t to say that personal friendships won’t remain intact. They will. It means the day-to-day connections, social functions, and camaraderie is no longer available to them. This may result in feelings of disappointment, abandonment, anger, and profound sadness for the family. By normalizing the experience, survivors can understand the changes in the relationship with their love one’s work community and not take it personally.
Where the Healing Begins
Although we pay great honor to those who die in service, the pain of losing a loved one lingers beyond the funeral and public dedication. For years to come, the family and friends left behind travel a long and unpredictable grief journey. They seek comfort in their precious memories and struggle to make sense of why their love one’s death happened when it did and in the way it did.
There is immense pride knowing that your loved one died while serving his or her community and country. However, the wound of losing a father or mother, son or daughter, sister or brother, is deep and not easy to heal. This is where the bereaved person struggles. Why? Why us? Why him? Why now? And… how am I going to go on without him?
The question why actually facilitates the search for meaning. You don’t have to answer this question. They need to ask the question and they need to search for their own answers. It is in searching for the answers that the work of mourning and healing takes place. The person will adopt the answer that is most meaningful and makes sense to them.
How to Provide Support
It is important to understand how the journey of grief unfolds and what it means to do the work of mourning and healing. There is no cookie-cutter approach to supporting an individual in grief. Loss impacts everyone differently and while our responses have a common theme, the process is as individual and unique as the person who died.
The death of a loved one unleashes an excess of feelings. Some won’t believe they are capable of having such intense emotions, which can be explosive. These responses are not predictable or easily categorized in a logical fashion. There are no stages or phases to successfully pass through. The journey is not a beautiful walk; it is more like the evil roller coaster ride from hell! There are times when all one can do is to white knuckle it through the day and hope to get to the end of it.
Here are ways to provide support to a grieving person:
- People require short-term and long-term supports. There is a great deal of attention and activity around the family in the early days, weeks, and months. This is short-term support. As time goes on those supports tend to wane leaving the family feeling vulnerable and alone.
- Don’t expect them to ‘get over’ what has happened. You never get over losing a loved one. You learn to live with the loss and integrate it into your life.
- Say the name of the person who died. You won’t upset the family. They don’t want to forget their loved one and they don’t want anyone else to either.
- Allow the person to cry without apologizing to them. We often say, “Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.” You didn’t make them cry. You gave them permission to let go of the pain and bring relief to their mind, body, and spirit. Tears are a natural way to release the stress and sorrow.
- Don’t try to fix it. You can’t. Allow the person to feel what they need to feel for however long they need to feel it without offering advice or attempting to persuade them in any way.
- Allow for anger and grief bursts. Anger is a normal part of the process. The person will feel it and needs to be allowed to express it. A burst of grief is when the person is seemingly having a relatively normal day and then is suddenly triggered by something they saw, read, or heard. It happens to everyone.
- Take care of yourself. If you want to support someone, then it is imperative that you eat well, get plenty of rest, have some fun, and give yourself permission to step aside for brief breaks. If you have unresolved grief, then now is the time to deal with it so you can be there for the other person.
- Prepare for grief in the workplace. Some will struggle because of their personal connection with the person and/or because the sorrow triggers unreconciled grief from past losses. Employers and supervisors should educate themselves on what to look for and how to best get the conversation started at work.