Why Do First Responders Experience Complicated Grief?

Grief is something rarely talked about openly, and even more rarely amongst first responders. After all, they deal with life and death situations nearly every shift. It is hard to look at death in the face so much and not feel something, yet that is what is required of them day after day. Humans are never meant to face such difficult situations and depravity on a daily basis.

Grief is a natural human response to difficult experiences but it is how it is deconstructed that makes a difference. Complicated grief is even more complex but it still should be dealt with in a positive way and not pushed aside.

What Is Complicated Grief

Complicated grief is when a person gets stuck in a space where they cannot let go of an event or experience that happened. This event caused pain, trauma, grief, loss, and in many ways shaped how they see the world. Part of grieving is learning how to talk about it openly and share so they can mourn in a healthy way. They may not be responsible for the loss, especially as a first responder, but they are responsible for how they respond to it.

Even if they are angry or frustrated, it is okay to feel those emotions, just not get stuck in them. Community is important in helping people move past their grief to something more healthy. It might mean they are feeling the weight of the grief still but holding it with others can be healthier than holding it in isolation.

Feeling the Burn

First responders experience burnout because they are unable to process all the experiences they have on the job. Over time, the accumulation of these stressors causes mental distress, occupational disruption, and compassion fatigue. First responders carry a certain weight with them of having to cope with these issues. They are supposed to handle everything, yet, they struggle. They are not unscathed by the chaotic environments around them.

Their brain cannot handle seeing what it sees and so the body begins to feel the weight of the pain, too. It may feel unnatural to let emotions escape but it is healthy to feel the weight of sadness, grief, anger, and other emotions. Identifying with the family in some way (they have a child the same age) when a call comes in can make it challenging. Parenting changes how people respond to others and respond to calls.

It is hard to deal with the ramifications of their choices because they may think they could have done more or should not have felt the way they did. In truth, maybe nothing could have been done differently to help that person but the outcome still haunts them.

Coping With Grief

In the compounded loss, coping mechanisms go out the window. People cope in the best way they know how to. They respond to the scene where someone is in need and go into direct help mode. Afterward, they may have a strong emotional reaction but they are not able to process it. It is difficult to cope with experiences sometimes and it brings on things like personal life disruption, health, financial challenges, abuse of substances, and other means just to cope with the negative emotions.

How people cope with the job with daily adversity matters over time. Coping is a natural way people respond to stressful events and makes the difference between burnout and staying healthy on the job. When the dam for grief opens up, the flood ensues and people usually cannot compensate any longer and need to find additional support resources.

Mind the Gap

The gap between where first responders live at work and where they want to live in their minds and bodies are different spaces. They want to discharge stress built up over time but sometimes it is hard to open up to someone else. The purpose of peer support programs is to give people a safe space to feel heard and understood. Strong support systems are key. An effective way to cope is by seeking out closure and requesting a follow up on people for whom a situation was difficult. It can help people close the gap in their minds between what they did on the job to realize they did all they could do. Nothing about it is done in a clinical way other than to tell people the information and how it was handled.

Finding Hope

Grief counseling and support for first responders still need work. There is not enough being done to help those on the job find help. It is helpful to understand how survivors of the people they save respond with grief because it allows people to be better able to recognize trauma, see what needs doing and also provide additional support to colleagues when they suffer. Hope is not far away for those able to reach out and ask for help. Even if they become addicted to substances, they can still find healing in reaching out to ask for help. Finding hope in grief is important if people want to move forward and learn to believe that life can still be great in the midst of the grief and people are there to support their journey of healing.

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