By Jeff Dill
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) recently held their first annual retreat for family members left behind by firefighter and EMT suicides. The event was held in Savannah, Georgia, from May 21-24, 2015. My wife Karen and I met eleven of the most courageous people who came from Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, and Florida. There were mothers, fathers, sisters, sister-in-laws, brothers, daughters and son-in-laws, but they were much more than that. These were people still reeling from the shock and pain of losing a loved one that ranged from four months to five years ago. I am positive that each family member that attended was feeling apprehension as to what emotions would play out to strangers they had just met on Thursday night. Karen and I had the same feelings.
When FBHA was first founded in 2011, one of the three main goals was to create a weekend retreat to let people know that they are not alone. To assist us, we invited Sarah Gaer, a mental health expert from Connecticut, and Lt. Jerry Meddock Jr., a firefighter and Chaplain from Ohio. Both Sara and Jerry are also suicide survivors.
We wanted more than just workshops for our group. We wanted people to interact as well as enjoy the wonderful and historic city of Savannah. A trolley tour, riverboat cruise, restaurant dining and quality family time to go out and explore were also on the agenda. Yet nothing was more heart warming than what Karen and I observed from our Carriage House room that overlooked the courtyard on late Friday night. There were the families who just met 24 hours ago, talking and laughing with each other. They were strangers brought together by tragedy and now by there own choice, brought together to create friendships. It was one of the most rewarding feelings we ever have experienced in our lives.
On Friday night we held the first “WE REMEMBER” night at Savannah Fire House Station #3. For one minute the SFD ran their emergency lights as our families held candles to express, “we will always remember our lost loved one.” In fact, we were joined by fire and EMS organizations all over North America who joined us by running their lights and holding candles.
Although tears flowed during our emotional sessions there was laughter as well, and bonding that we could ever describe in this article. When Sunday morning arrived, Karen and I found that we actually did very little in getting people together. They found a spirit deep within themselves to reach out to each other and create memories and relationships that will last a lifetime. As one member said during a courtyard chat, “it felt good to feel normal again.” Another found himself expressing that because of this weekend he felt “hope” again for his healing process.
It’s now Monday afternoon and we are back in Arizona readying for the week. Yet these families still face their emotions on a daily basis. We carry the belief that for one weekend, one very special weekend our new family,(yes not only friends but family members), can reflect back to a time when they felt laughter, felt hope, felt normal and will reach out to talk with each other when needed.
Final thought: Reflecting back on the title of this article, “memories of a lifetime,” we were referring to our own memory. Our newest family members have created memories that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. For that, we will be forever thankful.
God Bless and Stay Safe.
Jeff Dill is a captain at Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Inverness, Illinois, and founder of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.