Grieving an Unexpected Loss
Death is a difficult part of life to process and live through. When we hear about the death of a first responder in another community, it seems almost impossible to imagine something similar happening in our own department.
However, when we unexpectedly lose a team member, especially as a first responder, it can be shocking and jarring while also believing there are hardly words to describe what we think and feel.
The stages of grief are feelings or thoughts that individuals can experience when we lose someone or something in our life. Everyone experiences grief differently. The grief process is unique to each person and their relationship to the person they lost.
And it is important to remember that there is no “right way” to experience grief. Some may experience intense thoughts and feelings while others don’t.
The stages of grief are outlined below. It is important to mention that individuals do not always experience these stages in a progressive or linear manner. It is absolutely normal to experience one of the stages more than once, or completely skip a stage.
Read these five stages to gain insight on what you may be experiencing:
The Five Stages of Grief
Denial or shock can be the first response you feel when you learn of the death. Thoughts like “how could that be, I just met them for dinner on our break,” “that could never happen to one of us,” or “it can’t be true…someone must be confused” are all typical thoughts to experience.
These thoughts of denial are a natural defense for us. We use these thoughts to protect ourselves when we learn about the tragic event. It is also the body’s way of coping to the initial shock to prevent being overwhelmed by too many emotions at this point.
Tips for Denial
When going through this stage, having a support system can be greatly beneficial. Having others to talk with or just listen can help us process the thoughts and feelings we have. Also, not putting a timeline or expectations on yourself, and not comparing yourself to others in their grieving process can help to remove any additional stressors and allow you to move through the grieving process at your own pace.
Anger is another stage of grieving and can be particularly important in this process. Being angry at the person you lost, people from your team or family, life itself, or even being angry at or questioning God are completely natural. Thoughts of “how could this happen,” or “why him or her,” can occur during this time.
The actual reality of the person being gone may be starting to set in which can trigger the anger or other deep emotions. There is likely emotional discomfort and change you are experiencing.
When we are angry during grieving, we are often trying to feel a sense of control and connect with others who feel similar. Many times, underneath the anger, there are other emotions including irritability, bitterness, anxiety, or guilt. Again, remember that there is no "right way" to experience all of this, and being honest with yourself in this process is important.
Tips for Anger
Remind yourself that underneath your anger is likely pain in losing the person. When you allow yourself to feel anger in helpful ways, it will dissipate quicker. It may be tempting to numb during this time, but numbing keeps us from processing the grief and leads to isolating ourselves. Talking with a licensed counselor, if you are facing difficulty working through your anger, is another way to work through this stage.
Bargaining can be experienced in a variety of ways. This can look like “What If” statements like “what if I had let them leave earlier". Also, “Negotiation” statements like “if this never happens again, I’ll do better at supporting my team members” are a couple examples of thoughts or ways we can experience bargaining when we grieve.
Bargaining is where we try to hold on to hope or promise of things being what they were as we feel powerful pain from our loss. It is also a way we try to find control in a situation where we feel out of control. Guilt could also be present during this phase which can increase the need for control in our life.
Tips for Bargaining
Reframe your thoughts and focus on the positive. Do not bottle or hold feelings in. Find activities you enjoy like working out, writing, listening to music, taking a walk or run, drawing, or a different healthy activity and let yourself release the feelings.
During the depression stage of grief, you may have feelings of despair or intense sadness. You may also feel some physical symptoms like fatigue, exhaustion, lack of appetite, or trouble concentrating which are normal.
When you begin identifying what your present reality now is after losing someone, this can cause us to feel depressed because we are acknowledging the loss in our life. Feeling deep sadness during this time, especially after a traumatic loss or line of duty death, is natural and a healthy part of processing our grief.
Tips for Depression
Connect with others, and do not isolate yourself. Talk about how you are feeling with people you are close with and feel safe talking to. Take care of yourself, like eating healthy and exercising, to diminish the physical effects of depression you may be feeling.
Another important tip is to allow yourself to experience and process your thoughts and emotions to help prevent getting stuck in a continuous loop if we try hiding them away. Sometimes, this might be helpful when done in a counseling session with a professional who also understands grief for first responders.
Acceptance is the beginning of learning and living a different daily reality. This is the start of progressing on after the loss and building your new rhythm and norm.
Acceptance is not being okay with everything that happened. Acceptance is more focused on acknowledging the loss you experienced, adjusting your life, and learning to live in a new way after the loss. It is a way of adjusting to a new permanent reality that you now acknowledge.
Reaching acceptance may not be the conclusion of your grief. It is important to remember that sometimes grief can come in waves, and that these "stages" are not linear. Do not be critical of yourself if you experience these stages all over again.
Tips for Acceptance
Try to focus on the positive and avoid being critical of yourself or others for how you develop your new norm. Embrace this change and acknowledge how you are feeling. Reach out to friends or family if you need support during this time.
Knowing When to Reach Out for Help
Knowing when to reach out for help for yourself or a friend is critical. There are various resources available to get support that include talking with your peers or family, resources offered through work or in the community, or reaching out to a licensed counselor for therapy.
Some signs indicating a potential need for counseling can include:
- Isolating from friends and family.
- Experiencing deep and persistent sadness or guilt that does not change or even becomes worse.
- Substance use issues arise, from drinking excessively to using prescription medications inappropriately.
- Risky behavior patterns develop (such as intense or excessive risk taking, excessive gambling).
- Serious thoughts of hurting yourself or others.
- Reoccurring nightmares, particularly around the loss or incident.
- Feeling stuck and not being sure how to move on.
Warning Signs for Friends or Family:
- Isolating from friends or family.
- Drastic changes in behaviors, seems like they are a different person.
- Substance use concerns.
- Drastic changes in job performance, like getting written up when they had a clean record before.
- Expressing thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves or others.
Knowing what to look for to keep yourself and your team members safe is vital to preventing more loss in our life.
We hope this has provided insight into what you may be experiencing. Please remember, the grieving process is different and unique for everyone. Healthy grieving is how we experience and move through our life after a loss. Embrace your unique process and know that others are there to support you.
Take care, friends!
Liz Durfee, ASW
Liz is an Associate Clinical Social Worker in California. She is one of our experienced counselors at Code 3 Counseling. Liz specializes in working with first responder and military trauma. You can contact her through our website.
If you find that this exercise or these conversations brought up some stuff you are struggling with, either individually or in your relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. We are here to support you, and we understand that this can be a challenging issue to face.
Remember, it may be your battle, but you don’t have to fight it alone.