When someone is a first responder, they deal with many difficult emotions and experiences, one of which is grief. Grief is defined as the sorrow and anguish one feels after a great loss. Despite how hard a first responder may work, they can’t save everyone. Sometimes they may lose someone while on duty.
Often, first responders sacrifice much of themselves for their duty, and that can include common life experiences. A prime example of this is choosing to be a first responder over starting a family. How we feel grief is unique to each person and can sometimes be muddled with feelings of guilt, anger, and shame.
Stigma and Grief
It’s normal for people to feel and experience grief. However, it can be difficult for a first responder to process their grief for several reasons. One is the general stigma around mental health and first responders. This stigma paints first responders as superhumans who never need help. The other is the untrue thought that since they could not save a life, they deserve the pain that comes from it.
Punishing yourself is never helpful, especially for events that are beyond someone’s control. Sometimes someone may feel as though they must sacrifice everything to help others, and that feeling grief as a result of that is weak or selfish.
It’s vital for the health of our first responders to recognize the signs of grief, understand why we feel it, and seek help to let us process our grief. Doing so not only helps improve the lives of those who protect us but helps our society improve as a whole.
Why Do We Experience Grief?
We experience grief as a response to loss. Loss is painful and difficult for us to process as people. A person does not experience these emotions because they are weak; they experience them because they are human.
Loss doesn’t always have to come from death, but it’s one of the most common sources of grief. A first responder may experience grief because of the nature of their work. When someone becomes a first responder, they sacrifice a lot to help other people. Sometimes they may no longer have time for relationships. They may decide to not have children. Often first responders must go where they are needed, leaving their previous lives behind. All of these are valid sources of grief.
We also experience grief because it’s known as a “big” emotion. These types of emotions overshadow most other emotions and make it difficult to feel much else. It’s easy to express physical pain, but mental pain is difficult to express and process.
When we cannot process our grief and let it go, it can spiral out of control and lead to severe physical and mental consequences.
The Long-Term Effects of Grief
When someone doesn’t seek treatment for their grief, it can express itself into long-lasting mental health issues. The most common mental health disorder that can come from it is depression. Depression makes it difficult for someone to function in their daily life and may sometimes lead to thoughts of death or suicide.
Sometimes a person may become anxious, especially if the grief came from trauma. It can make it feel as though someone is trapped in their heads, preventing them from concentrating or making quick decisions. All these are vital skills for a first responder and are the first skills to decline as a result of grief.
Grief can also cause physical symptoms that can prevent someone from performing their duties or even functioning normally. For example, we need sleep to heal and stay healthy. Sometimes being in mourning interferes with the ability to get restful and quality sleep. This can lead to someone getting sick more often, losing the ability to regulate some emotions, and having trouble thinking.
Sometimes grief presents as a loss of appetite, causing someone to rapidly lose weight. This is dangerous for first responders, as they rely on their bodies to be healthy and strong to save lives.
We are also impacted socially when it comes to grief. A person in mourning may isolate themselves, withdrawing from loved ones. Sometimes they may even lose interest in things that once brought them joy. Humans need social interaction to stay healthy, and truly isolated people are at risk for worsening mental health.
If anyone experiences these types of symptoms that persist for more than two weeks, it’s time to seek help right away.
Treatment Options for a First Responder
Sometimes it can be difficult for a first responder to seek treatment for grief, especially with the stigma surrounding it. However, specialized programs have begun to emerge that specifically work with first responders. One such program is Command Post Wellness, which helps first responders find mental healthcare and treatment that fits their busy lives and schedules.
Specialized support groups are also available, where fellow first responders can support each other. These groups can be usually found online, but some can be found by contacting your local mental healthcare facility, hospital, or community center.
Getting help starts by recognizing that you need help and then asking for it. Calling your local mental health care facility can yield valuable information on where to go next. For grief, many people are treated using psychotherapy or talk therapy. This type of therapy helps someone recognize the underlying condition of their grief. For first responders, this is especially important when it comes to feelings of guilt or self-harm. Therapy can teach someone the skills they need to help process their grief and let it go.
It’s important to remember that grief doesn’t make someone weak. It’s a normal part of being human. It is possible to recover from grief with time and work. If you or someone you love is struggling with grief that is impacting the ability to function and work, it’s time to call for help.
Grief can be hard for anyone to process. It is especially hard for first responders, who deal with tragedy and trauma daily. Grief can build up over time, causing depression, anxiety, and other serious mental health disorders. It’s crucial to seek help to learn how to process and let go of grief to function as a first responder and as a person. At Acera Health in Costa Mesa, California, we offer treatments to help anyone learn how to process their grief. Grief is a natural human emotion that everyone feels at some point, and there is no shame in experiencing it. If you or someone you love needs help for their mental health, call (949) 647-4090 today.
Melody is a highly skilled proactive clinical administrator, with more than 17 years of experience serving the community in the behavioral health field.
Her clinical management career started in 2011 as a compliance manager and program director. In 2018, she became an executive as chief clinical officer (CCO). She is a seasoned licensed marriage & family therapist.