Firefighter Marriage: Divorce Is Not the End

By Anne Gagliano

As I’ve written before, I HATE divorce. Divorce is never victimless, and unfortunately the ultimate victims typically are the children. It is something to be avoided at all costs; every means possible should be expended to save the marriage, as it is almost always the better option. Marriage is the most intimate relationship for us to aspire to, a union of body and soul. When it ends, it is tragic, painful, devastating. Marriage is worth fighting for with everything you’ve got. But, if after your noblest efforts you still find yourself getting divorced, please remember this: As bad as it is, divorce is not the end.

I’m writing this on the cusp of a recent, heartbreaking tragedy: a firefighter’s suicide within our own personal sphere. This suicide stemmed from a bitter divorce, an alarming trend for firefighters nationwide. When the fire department loses a brother or a sister, the loss is felt by all. And there is no more painful loss than a suicide; a once vibrant member of a life-saving team has become isolated and alone, falling into the ultimate depths of despair.

Bill Prasad, the behavioral health coordinator for Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue, reports the following statistics on suicide in America:

  • There are 30,000 suicides a year, 80 a day, 1 every 15 minutes.
  • Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death.
  • Each suicide affects at least six people.
  • 72% of all suicides are white males.
  • By occupation, military, police, paramedics, and firefighters have the highest rates.
  • The Chicago Fire Department had seven suicides in 18 months from 2008-2009.
  • Triggers for suicide include death of a loved one, trauma/stress, illness, financial or legal troubles, job loss/retirement, lack of support/isolation.
  • Divorce is the #1 trigger for suicide; 80% of suicides are linked to divorce.

And guess who has the highest divorce rates? The four professions listed above. Divorce, thus, is a major issue for the firefighter. Statistically speaking, the firefighter is already at risk for suicide just because of the stress of the job; add to it a bitter divorce, which can lead to financial and legal struggles, and the threat is through the roof. It is an unfortunate reality of this profession, one that the firefighter brotherhood/sisterhood should be aware of.

Firefighters, if you should find yourself going through a divorce, please remember that while it is indeed the sad end to a chapter, it is not the end of your story. Recognize your vulnerability, and take steps to keep from utter despair, which can lead to thoughts of suicide. Here are 5 ways to get through a divorce.

1. Seek help from your fellow firefighters. The high-stress world of firefighting can add to the weight of despair, but the unique bonds of brotherhood/sisterhood can also lighten that load. Do not go through your divorce alone. Tell your crew. They need to know; they deserve to know. Your actions and moods affect them. Never think for one second that no one cares. Seek out a trusted officer, who can put you in contact with numerous sources of aid and support (i.e., someone like our particular favorite, Seattle Fire Chaplain Joel Ingebritson). You’re not in this alone, and your actions do not only affect you.

Warning signs to look for in a fellow firefighter who may be contemplating suicide are as follows:  extreme hopelessness/negativity/tiredness, buying a weapon, giving away possessions, making a will, plans for taking “a long trip,” taking unusual risks, substance abuse, or a sudden change in religious beliefs (can include positive or negative extremes).

2. Give it time. It can take years to feel “normal” again after a divorce. It can be as painful as a death; in a way, it is a type of death—the death of a relationship. Don’t be in a hurry to “end the pain”; it simply must be felt, endured, and suffered through. Be patient; it will pass eventually. Take life one day at a time and know that you will have joy again.

3. Never give up on the kids. No matter what the situation, never give up on having a relationship with your kids. The trauma of not seeing them every day can be brutal, but be careful to not make it about what you need. What they need is to know that you’ll always be there, in any way shape or form they can get. Even if it’s only one day a week, hang in there for that one day. If they’re hostile, keep reaching out. If the ex is making it difficult, don’t quit trying. Never believe that they don’t need you anymore. This is an absolute lie. Someday the kids will appreciate your efforts even if they don’t right now. I know this from personal experience; my dad kept trying, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

4. Forgiveness is essential. Forgive your ex, no matter how horribly that ex may have treated you, for your own sake. “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (Original source for this quote: The Sermon on the Mount.)  Forgiveness does not mean condoning; it means letting go of the anger that can turn to hatred, which can then lead to rage, even violence. To err is human—remember that. Marriage is tough; 50% fail. For the firefighter, the rate is even higher. You may need to forgive yourself as well; maybe the divorce was more your fault. Don’t let regret turn to despair.

5. Learn from your mistakes. There are many reasons for marital failure. Maybe you married the wrong person. Make note of what was “wrong” about them and look for something different in the future. Own up to your failures and determine not to repeat them in the next relationship. Just because one marriage ended doesn’t mean a future one will. And you’ll have a better chance at success if you choose to change.

Divorce is tough stuff; don’t go through it alone. Give it some time, hang in there for the kids, forgive, and apply what you’ve learned from failure—some of the best success stories are born from failure. Sometimes love is better the second time around. Life can and does go on. Divorce is not the end.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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