18 Years Later: Fire Fighters Coping With Grief

Author: IAFF Staff

September 10, 2019

It’s hard to believe that 18 years have passed since the worst attack on American soil that claimed the lives of 343 FDNY fire fighters, along with more than 3,000 Americans. While our nation honors all who were lost on 9/11, the 33rd IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial service on Saturday, September 21, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will recognize 250 fallen fire fighters from the United States and Canada and add their names to the Wall of Honor. Anyone who has ever lost a friend, a crew member or family member knows what it means to grieve. Many never recover completely but learn to live with a new normal. We learn to cope with good days and accept bad, hopefully growing as people. Some of us transform the loss into something positive and life affirming.  

Do Fire Fighters Cope Differently?

While grief is a universal human reaction, for fire fighters and paramedics, some of the grieving process is influenced by the unique aspects of the job. When a brother or sister dies in the line of duty, crew members may still be responsible for clearing the scene, carrying out usual protocol, notifying family members and other required duties. While funerals and memorial services offer a rare moment to pause and truly honor the loss, fire fighters are often back to work the same or next day.   Regardless of their grief or emotional state, fire fighters on shift are expected to function at full capacity, make immediate critical decisions and protect the community at large. While work provides an important sense of structure, routine and normalcy that help facilitate the grieving process, work can also be used to avoid emotion, which can complicate the grieving process.  

What Do We Know About Grief?

Grief is a normal response of sorrow, heartache or loss that occurs after losing someone or something important to you. Grief can also occur in the aftermath of a major disaster or other traumatic events. In these instances, you may or may not have a close relationship with those lost. When a fire fighter dies in the line of duty, crew members will experience feelings of grief.

What Should I Expect?

Grief is not considered a psychological disorder, but does involve several emotional, behavioral and physiological reactions, including:
  • Intense feelings of sadness, emptiness, loss or feeling nothing at all (numbness)
  • Waves of anger towards God, those involved in the incident or even the deceased
  • Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness or slowed thinking
  • Muscle weakness or tension, abdominal discomfort or changes in appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping or fatigue
  • Desire to withdraw from others or disengage from usual activity
  • Questions about the meaning and purpose of life
These reactions are considered normal. Grief can be experienced differently from person to person. While some will find relief in the support of crew and family, others will prefer to be alone. For most, the reactions described above usually subside within a few weeks or months as the person accepts the loss and functions in the new normal.  

When Is Grief No Longer Just Grief?

For some, however, grief can linger and transform into complicated grief, which is diagnosed as clinical depression. Below are some subtle but important differences between grief and complicated grief outlined by the American Psychiatric Association:  
Grief Complicated Grief
Waves of emotion come and go  Sadness, anger or despair are daily and persistent for several weeks
Desire to withdraw Desire to withdraw
The individual feels comfort from social support, despite desire to withdraw The individual is unable to feel comfort from social support
The individual has good days and bad days The individual has mostly bad days
Daily functioning is mostly intact  Daily functioning is consistently impaired
Sporadic thoughts of death are tied to desire to reunite with the deceased, or a general curiosity about death Recurring thoughts of death are tied to feeling worthless, undeserving or unable to cope

Coping in the Aftermath

Most fire fighters function extremely well under pressure and the fast-paced nature of the job. For those who experienced a loss, the hardest part is often coping with the downtime and the quiet after a shift has ended, memorial services conclude or when activity settles down. For ideas on how to take care of yourself during grief, see the IAFF Guide on Coping With Grief. If you are suffering from complicated grief or feel unable to move forward after a loss, the time to talk to someone is now. Start by reaching out to a trusted friend, chaplain, peer support team or your EAP.  

Sometimes Talking Is Not Enough

The IAFF Center of Excellence is a residential mental health and substance abuse treatment facility exclusively for IAFF members located 45 minutes outside of Washington, DC. Call today for a free and confidential screening or to learn more about treatment options designed specifically for fire fighters. Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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