By Anne Gagliano
It happened pretty recently—around Christmas time of this last year—one of the toughest runs Mike’s been on, ever. I could hear it in his voice that night when he called me from the station; he was quite animated, his voice a bit louder than normal. Usually on the phone he is calm and soft-spoken, saying that he’d had a few runs that day but they were “no big deal.” But not this night. He was agitated, amped full of adrenaline, and wide awake though it was late. I knew it before he even spoke the words; he’d had a tough run that day.
“It was pretty bad,” Mike said to me on the phone, which is saying a lot, for he always tones everything way down.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Car fire,” he answered. “A young couple was inside. It was near where Michael and Sammy live” (our son and daughter-in-law).
“Is the couple all right?” I dared to ask, though I could tell they weren’t.
“No,” he said, “they burned to death.”
Being burned alive is every firefighter’s worst nightmare. The only thing worse would be to have it happen to one of your children. Mike had to face both of these horrors that day; he was so shaken as to call our son, just to make sure it was not him or his wife in that unrecognizable car. Those young people were somebody else’s children, but Mike is one to still feel the weight of their loss.
His crew spent the rest of the evening in a “defusing” meeting—a mandatory protocol after a particularly traumatic event. This helps immensely, for it gives firefighters a chance to blow off some steam within a supportive structure. But the lingering emotions still come home with them the next day, especially if they have a tender heart, as my husband most certainly does.
Mike sees horrible stuff all the time, but I rarely hear of it because not all of it affects him as deeply as this one did. This time, however, I knew; how did I know? Because he told me. Over the 20-plus years of our firefighter marriage, we’ve developed a healthy mode of communication for handling the tough runs. It took us awhile to iron out the kinks of dealing with trauma, but we’ve got it pretty well down pat. Rule number one is this: Firefighters must tell their spouse when they’ve had a particularly upsetting shift; if they do not, the spouse can and usually will misinterpret their mood on arrival at home. Spouses, though close, are not mind readers. We can, however, pick up on negative moods and behaviors and often mistake them for something personal. The typical firefighter desires to protect, to save, and to rescue, so it is only natural for them to wish to keep the ugly truths of death and suffering from their mate. This is a noble intention but a misguided one, for misunderstandings can result. We spouses would rather know what’s really bothering you than not know.
Exposure to trauma and death causes emotional reactions; this is totally normal. The only time one does not respond with sorrow to human suffering and tragedy is if one has no heart. Most firefighters are all heart—that’s what led them to serve humanity in the first place. But caring comes with a price, and that price is pain.
Typical reactions to trauma include anxiety, irritability or anger, moodiness, sadness, and depression. One can become distracted, become withdrawn, and have trouble making even simple decisions, like choosing what you want for dinner. (Dinner choice is a common problem in our house.) Sleeplessness and fatigue can also be a result of trauma, as grief is exhausting and sleep does not come easily to a troubled mind. All of these behaviors have a direct impact on family life; if ignored, the effects can be long-term and quite damaging.
It is not uncommon for firefighters (and cops) to suppress emotional pain by turning to alcohol or drugs for comfort. This is an unhealthy outlet for stress and can lead to divorce or even job loss. The much better option is to simply tell your spouse what’s going on with you—talk about it, let it out, for it is no secret to them that something’s wrong anyway.
Tom Kenney of the Providence Fire Department wrote in his article “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Spouse’s Role”: “Once you begin to share your real feelings and fears with your spouse, it relieves you of the burden of always having to seem undaunted by the traumatic things we are exposed to from time to time. It allows you to strip down that wall of invulnerability at home while still maintaining control at work.”
Your spouse is your best source of support but only if you let him or her be. Experts report that human beings can endure incredible amounts of stress if they have just one person in their life who truly sees and understands and supports them in what they’re going through–just one. If you let your spouse be that one, not only will your marriage and family life be better, but so will your job performance. Within the nurturing oasis of home, you can recharge your batteries, giving you strength to get up and do it again. But the first step begins with you, the firefighter, in opening up to your mate.
What’s the next step? This one’s on you, the spouse of a firefighter. They’ve dared to tell you they’ve had a tough run—they’ve trusted you with that sensitive information. So what do you do about it? Communication is, after all, a two-way street, and it is not always the firefighter’s fault when it goes awry. Perhaps they’ve attempted to share their painful feelings with you in the past and you didn’t handle it very well, so now they’re reluctant to do so again.
In my next column, I will address the spouse’s role in this hard conversation and share what actually helps my firefighter handle trauma and what does not.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.