Relationships

Living with Trauma in the Firefighter Marriage

By Anne Gagliano

Are firefighters traumatized?  This is an important question, as exposure to trauma is the most impactful experience known to the human psyche. And if someone is traumatized, it can dramatically impact his marriage. For this reason, spouse, it’s important for you to know if and when your firefighter experiences the following:

  • Witnessed a shooting or stabbing.
  • Witnessed someone getting hurt or killed.
  • Witnessed a horrific traffic accident.
  • Seen a dead child or infant.
  • Been unable to rescue someone from fire or drowning.
  • Lost a co-worker.
  • Suffered a debilitating or life-threatening injury

If your firefighter has endured any of the above, he has been traumatized (firefighters report that the death of a child or a co-worker as being the most traumatic of all). Trauma is the Greek word for “wound”–in this context, a wounded heart. Anyone with a heart will be susceptible to being hurt, and let’s face it—firefighters are all heart. When exposed to critical incidents, it is both typical and normal to have physical and emotional reactions. A firefighter spouse should be on the lookout for these behaviors at home:

Physiological and emotional:

  • Heightened anxiety or fear about the death of others, anxiety about the future.
  • Irritability, restlessness, over excitability.
  • Feelings of sadness, moodiness, more crying than usual.
  • Feelings of numbness or detachment.
  • “Survivor guilt” or feelings of self-blame.
  • Mood swings; small reminders or emotional events that seem insignificant can trigger sudden changes in mood or intense reactions.

 

Cognitive:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Feeling confused, disoriented, distracted, unable to think as quickly or as easily as usual.
  • Difficulty making decisions that normally would be easy.
  • Worrying about death or thinking about people who have died.

 

Physical:

  • Headaches.
  • Nausea or upset stomach.
  • Exaggerated startle response (easily startled).
  • Fatigue; a lot of energy goes into grief work, and it can be overwhelming and physically draining.

 

Behavioral:

  • Hyperactivity or less activity than usual.
  • Withdrawal, social isolation.
  • Avoidance of activities or places that bring memories of the event.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Inability to fall asleep or remain asleep, disrupted sleep, deep sadness on awakening.

 

Ironically, the most typical reaction of all to sorrow is irritability or anger. Anger is a functioning emotion, one that allows the firefighter to “keep going,” as sitting down and crying at a fire scene is simply not an option. Anger deadens pain and gives strength to keep fighting. Anger is normal, but anger is also toxic to the firefighter marriage.

“Unchecked extreme stress is an emotional and physical carnivore. It chews hungrily on so many of our officers with its razor-sharp fangs and does so quietly, silently in every corner of their lives. It affects their job performance, their relationships and ultimately their health.” –Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.

A beloved and dear friend of ours, Captain (Ret.) Mike Dugan from FDNY shared with us a very personal and powerful example of this. After 9/11, his daughter, who was six years old at the time, asked him, “Daddy, why are you so angry all the time?”  This was a major gut-punch, a wake-up call, as he realized his emotional trauma was impacting his family. He wisely sought help, and he attributes this to saving his marriage.

Knowing that most firefighters witness trauma–from minor car wrecks to major terrorist attacks–is half the battle. Knowing what to do about it, how to live with it, and how to actually help your spouse—these are the other half. And how do we help?  What are some of the best ways to safeguard the firefighter marriage against the ravages of trauma?  Here are a few ideas:

Take time. “He that lacks time to mourn lacks time to mend.”–Sir Henry Taylor. Time off is essential for the traumatized; encourage your firefighter to take it. If he returns too soon to work, another incident could occur for which he is not emotionally prepared. Time with you is healing; a time for sex, a time for laughter, and a time for singing—the three most healing of human experiences. Family normalcy, routine, and rest are the quickest ways to soothe a troubled heart. Firefighters have abundant sick leave—use it wisely to play the long game, both professionally and relationally.

Understanding. Understanding is essential to the firefighter marriage. Understanding is not empathy but a mental comprehension of this one fact: We spouses can never fully grasp what they’ve been through. A huge chasm exists between what they’ve experienced and what we have, unless we were there. This gap will always exist, so just accept it. Don’t press for details that may be too hard to relate, and don’t tell them how they should feel when you clearly cannot know. What they need to hear first and foremost is that you’re glad they’re home safe, that you’re there for them, and that you love them—no matter what.

And let it be okay that they may need to share some of the details with a co-worker instead of you. In fact, encourage this. Research has proven that debriefing with co-workers is both healing and healthy. Rehashing the experience with those that were there helps firefighters make peace with the memories, which alleviates avoidance behaviors such as anger.

Affirmation. The traumatized are very vulnerable to guilt, shame, and even self-loathing. For the type A, strong confident firefighter, feelings of sorrow can be misconstrued as weakness, even failure. Your loving presence powerfully refutes these lies. Tell them that you are proud of them, even if they made mistakes. Your unwavering belief in them will help restore their shaken confidence.

Support. True support means saying “thank you” for all that you do. It is appreciation for doing a tough job that most people would not or could not do. And when it comes from a spouse, it restores and revitalizes like nothing else. Support literally means “to help stand,” giving the firefighter the strength to endure incredible adversity.

When a firefighter has been traumatized, his psyche is “altered” or is temporarily quite susceptible to outside influence for good or for bad. Acosta and Prager write: ‘’An altered state is like fertile soil …. We can either say and do nothing, use our words and our presence to heal, or use words to harm.”

Have a plan in place ahead of time, firefighter couples, to be ready when that traumatic event occurs. Mental preparation will dramatically decrease emotional impact on the firefighter and ultimately on your relationship. Having no plan increases the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and marital implosion.

Marriage is superior to all other relationships in its ability to heal or to harm. Abraham Lincoln said it best when speaking to his wife Mary while leading our country through the horrors of the Civil War:  “What I carry within me—you must allow me to do it, alone as I must. And you alone, Mary, you alone may lighten this burden or render it intolerable. As you choose.”

What will you choose?

 

Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.