First Responders and Unresolved Grief

posted in: Grief Recovery 0

Those who work in law enforcement, EMS, fire, air medical, ER, etc. are all very familiar with the complexities of witnessing trauma on a daily basis.  These caring and hardworking first responders provide us with much-needed public safety and support.  Unfortunately, many of these individuals overlook their personal reactions or do not have the necessary tools to process and heal their own feelings of grief which results from their chosen careers.

I can’t begin to imagine the rush of emotions which must flood first responders after an emergency call.  They often find themselves in horrible situations where loss is sudden and unexpected.  Without proper tools to work through the situations, they do what we all have been taught to do when grieving: suppress emotions; pretend to be strong for others; and wait for time to make everything feel better.

For many, when time doesn’t ease the pain of suffering, the next strategy is to stay busy and replace the feelings of loss with something else.  While time may be filled with such things as alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, or whatever distract us, or helps us hide, from the feelings we do not wish to face, the healing remains unsuccessful.

Grief is the normal and natural reaction to an emotional loss of any kind and first responders have additional losses the general public may never encounter: the death of a patient; the inability to find an abducted child; watching the results of a disabling car accident; or being unable to extinguish a house fire while the residents remain inside.  Without a way to diffuse the emotional triggers, memories of these incidents can lead to nightmares and years of anxiety.

Grief can also be the change in something which was familiar; Perhaps a work partner dies, there is a reassignment to another team, a promotion is won or loss, or a retirement transpires. All of these daily situations can create feelings of loss.

Feeling grief is normal and natural. Unfortunately, it is society’s reaction to loss which can make us feel uncomfortable with the emotions we are experiencing.  In the workplace, most corporate policies provide us with a few days to deal with the trauma or death of a loved one.  Within this short time we are expected to put the pain behind us and come back to work in a functioning manner.

The Grief Recovery Method® (GRM) was designed by grievers for grievers.  It is an alternative to traditional therapy and is, at its core, an educational program.  Participants identify the losses they feel are incomplete or those which have been left unfinished.  Once identified they are taught a simple, yet effective, four step process to complete these emotions in order to actually “set these memories down”.

As human beings we want to finish the story we have experienced. Many times, in finishing the story, we also attempt to rewrite the ending.  Our mind enumerates over and over the “would have”, “should have”, and “could have” scenarios looking to complete the experience differently.  This constant looping keeps us trapped in a never ending cycle of pain.

First responders typically maintain a strong front on the job, in front of their coworkers, and perhaps even with their families.  Remaining alone with these unresolved emotions, and grief, can result in significant daily stress.  For some, it feels like a slow death as they deliberately withdraw from society due to feelings of frustration and anger.

One of the facts about grief is you must “feel to heal”.  You must allow yourself to experience the emotions with honesty.  The GRM is the only evidence-based grief program to-date.  It has been proven to work and I have personally witnessed participant after participant reclaim their joy by following the steps of this program.

With the support of a trained GRM Specialist facing the pain seems less overwhelming.  With this support there is a courage which surfaces; something which may not have been present during our attempts to sort through these emotions on our own.

Unresolved grief is merciless as it strives to get our attention for completion.  Symptoms vary, from individual to individual, including riding a roller coaster of emotional energy, a reduced ability to concentrate and focus, a sense of numbness (physical or emotional or both) mislabelled denial, disrupted sleeping patterns, changed eating habits, massive loss of energy, and a feeling or craving for isolation. Any of these symptoms can interfere with our ability to do our job, sustain a healthy relationship, or be the friend or parent we wish to be.

For retired first responders unresolved grief can present additional challenges as life slows down with less distractions and a void of the comradery felt in the workplace environment.  Alone with their thoughts, an entire career of suppressed emotions can begin to surface.  Completing these emotions, as early into retirement as possible, is a must in order to enjoy the next stages of life.

Without personal healing, family members and children of first responders can often experience their own personal grief over the changes in their loved one. There is a saying, “If you don’t heal the wounds, you will bleed on those who didn’t cut you”.  Facing and healing the emotions of a demanding and emotional career is essential to physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Healing, and learning the correct action steps, is essential to being focused and effective while on the job; allowing trust to surface again and personal walls to be at a minimum.

John W. James, Founder of the Grief Recovery Institute (GRI) is a retired vet.  He understands the damaging effects of communications left unsaid.  He, like many of us, tried all of the traditional methods to heal the pain after the death of his son. He found, while the support groups, workshops, and books could validate his pain, no one could show him a way out of it.  Desperate to heal John found a way to the other side of his personal hell and has spent over 40 years showing others how to do the same.

Healing is a choice and only we can be responsible for making that choice.

Our society perpetuates us not taking responsibility for our feelings and our reactions to what happens in life. It is a common misbelief someone else is the one responsible for making us angry, or sad, or frustrated.  At some point we’ve all said something starting with “They made me….” which in turn aids in a misunderstanding of not being in control.

When we believe someone else causes our discomfort, we also make them responsible for ending our discomfort. Nothing changes until we are wiling to take responsibility for our own recovery. The griever must be willing to take, at minimum, 1% responsibility for the emotions they are feeling and the part which feels incomplete.  In a safe and supportive environment, the griever must be prepared to face the emotions which were buried.  All this will help to set them free from their grief. 1% can begin opening our head and our heart to a different way of being.

Grief, and the emotions accompanying a loss or trauma, are unique to each of us.  No two people will experience pain in the same way.  EMS personnel, attending to an accident scene, will all respond differently to the results.  For this reason, at the GRI, we do not believe there are set stages of grief but rather we know there is, and work with, an array of emotions unique to each individual and their situation.

Learning the steps of the Grief Recovery Method® provides a lifelong tool which not only keeps life in balance but allows first responders to remain in their career of helping others, all without losing themselves in the process, and helps them reclaim the joy of life.

Tammy Adams is a Certified Grief Recovery Method Specialist supporting individuals Canada-wide in person or via the Internet.  To learn more about The Grief Recovery Method please visit or contact Tammy for a free consultation.