It’s normal for someone to experience grief after a traumatic experience. If we accept and process our pain, it becomes more likely that we can resolve it. But what if you feel you’re “not allowed” to mourn? What if you’ve been conditioned to believe that someone like you can’t show “weakness”? This is too often the case for first responders.
They are brave heroes who get medals and parades. Obviously, they can’t just cry or get burnt out from all the crises they witness. This stigma can be dangerous. Everyone needs time to process as they see fit. If not, they risk the daunting struggle of complicated grief.
What is Complicated Grief?
It might be overt. It could be invisible — even to the person who has suffered a loss. Complicated grief is a term meant to describe being stuck. We are advised to talk about grief. Join a bereavement group. Create rituals. Acknowledge the pain you feel. Generally speaking, these are considered healthy steps. A first responder does not always have access to such a process.
Each and every day can bring tragedy. They witness so many losses. Even if they are not responsible, they can feel guilt. But there’s no time to sort that out when you’re expected to step up for the next crisis. So, many first responders learn to hold it in and “stay strong.” This is a roadmap for complicated grief
Why Are First Responders at Risk of Unresolved Grief?
People who work in fields like EMS, firefighters, medical, and law enforcement are all too familiar with trauma. They get the call and off they go into unknown danger and horror. When they arrive, everyone — especially the victims — is counting on these first responders to be strong and calm. Can you imagine how external and internalized pressure this creates?
Like being in a war zone, you perform a type of emotional triage. You try (in vain) to distance yourself from the suffering you encounter. Meanwhile, it adds up. It builds and eventually takes its toll in the form of burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
Signs of Burnout
- Feeling numb, dissociated, exhausted, and overwhelmed
- Edgy, irritable, easily frustrated
- Not taking care of yourself — to the point of neglecting basic hygiene
- Self-medication (particularly with alcohol)
On the job, burnout manifests as an outward expression that you’re not making a difference. You feel like a failure any time a situation does not play out ideally. Even when you perform effectively and heroically, you can’t see it as a victory.
Signs of Secondary Traumatic Stress
Not just the victims are at risk of trauma. Witnessing traumatic events is a common cause of conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). First responders struggling with such secondary traumatic stress may display symptoms like:
- Physical signs of stress
- Nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts
- Chronic worry and dread
- Identifying with victims they have tried to help
How First Responders Can Practice Self-Care
There are practical steps, e.g.
- Managing the length and frequency of shifts
- Getting support from co-workers and supervisors
- Practicing basic self-care (sleep patterns, healthy eating, etc.)
- Setting boundaries when necessary
More holistically, first responders need to adjust their perceptions. This may involve:
- Caring for victims and survivors while also prioritizing yourself
- Recognizing when you need a break and not seeing this as weak or selfish
- Understanding that you are not the only one who can help
To facilitate such a shift, you could use the help of a skilled mental health professional. If you or someone you know is a first responder and needs help, we should talk. Let’s connect for a free and confidential consultation.