There are many things in life that come and go. Memories are one of those things. Sometimes the best memories fall from the grips of our clinching hands, but on the flip side, there are some that we’d love to throw clear across the universe with no hopes of a return. But those memories are more than just memories... they were once an experience, possibly something that shaped you into the person you have become.
It’s likely that certain memories fill a temporary void in your heart, while others completely rip a hole straight through it. But even those memories come to fade, too. However, there are some memories that never seem to leave the mind of those who are first responders. For me, I can remember every significant call that I’ve run where the person died tragically (isn’t all death tragic in a way?). It’s almost like one of those flip books. You know what I’m talking about, right? The ones that are animated and your thumb brushes each page quickly so you can see the animation taking place. That book opens and each page starts flipping every time I run call that results in a death. Some “pages”, the animation is a little more faded, but each of them still flip just as well as they did the day they were added to the book. The interesting part for me is, the questions, the what if’s, and the emotion have faded much faster than the memory. Some of those memories I can recall exactly how they played out. Though while I can recall the timeline perfectly, the emotions are not overwhelming, nor do they strike with fear, anxiety, or sadness. Nonetheless, the memories still exist vividly in my mind.
What can these memories provide for us? I mean other than pain, questions, or post traumatic stress? Can we really make them more than just a memory? Maybe these are questions you ask ourself often. Perhaps you’re asking yourself this question for the first time recently. The honest truth is, yes, you can allow your memories to be more than just memories. But you have to allow yourself to actually heal from those experiences that created the memories, then they become only that, a memory. In order for that to happen, you have to first take action. You have to do something called grieve. (Public Announcement... grieving doesn’t mean hysterical crying or shedding of a tear.) Most people don’t allow themselves to grieve the calls that they’ve run. Seems silly to grieve someone you didn’t know or a terrifying situation you walked away from. However, if you were exposed to trauma, it’s vital that you deal with that exposure properly. So how do you deal with it? I’m glad you asked. There are ways you deal with trauma naturally, which is called the stages of grief:(not all stages are experienced): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes maybe even self guilt is added to this process. You may go through each stage or you may not, each person and situation is different. These stages are normal and nothing to be ashamed of, they are expected. Though sadly, we are not good at allowing ourself to begin this process. We push these experiences to the back of our mind, ignore them, and pretend like they never happen. All the while, they are eating us alive.
If we could only allow ourselves to grieve the experience, just maybe we could allow it to become a memory. A memory that is detached from our emotions (called a “Memory Event”), but used as tool to build us into a stronger person. After all, your experiences in life are a large contributor to who you are. Typically that’s not how it works. We allow some memories and experiences to fester inside. Maybe it’s not immediate, so we don’t think it’s going to happen. Then comes along our next exposure to a traumatic event, which by then it’s too late and we realize that we never dealt with the last one. Whatever the case, it becomes more than just a memory. In fact, it becomes an emotional experience every time the memory/experience comes to mind (which is called an “Emotional Event”). The feelings come rushing back, like you’re in the moment all over again. This typically happens when we didn’t properly deal with the traumatic event that we now call a memory.
We have to address each event as it happens. We can’t wait days or weeks or years. We know when a call is traumatic. The odds are your crew does too. TALK ABOUT IT... simple enough. If it’s a sucky call, make sure you round up the crew and say, “Hey, that call sucked”. Chances are if you struggled with it, so did someone else. But even if not, at least you got it off your chest and are free to move on. You’re free to not be tormented or paralyzed by your thoughts. However, that’s when the BUTS come up, “BUT they might think I’m weak” ... “BUT they’re going to think I can’t handle the job”. Don’t worry about it, do your part and take care of yourself. And just maybe your boldness will help someone else in the process.
Side Note: ***If you’re an officer/senior firefighter, I ask you to make sure you’re asking your crew if they’re alright... like seriously, ask them and be intentional. Not just in passing, but in a serious sit down conversation. If you don’t do this yet, start immediately. You’re the leader and you make things acceptable by doing them yourself. While they may not think it’s normal for you to ask, eventually they’ll get use to it. And remember, even if it’s not for you, do it for your crew. Do it for their sanity and do it for their family. This job extends well beyond the station. Give yourself and your crew a fighting chance..***
What was I saying? Oh yeah, take care of yourself. You matter just as much as the next guy. Don’t get caught up in the stubbornness of those who refuse to talk. Talk to someone when you need to or be there for the other guys if you’re fine. Make it normal for your crew to debrief after traumatic calls.
Reality is for far too long, we’ve made it the norm not talking about “those” calls unless the department provides a team for us. Well, that hasn’t worked very well for us. Let’s change the pace and start talking within our stations. Concealing the problems you have and ignoring them won’t help you forget. Let yourself heal and deal with it as each incident comes. If there are incidents/memories still haunting you currently, track back and start talking through them now. It’s not too late.
Nothing I’ve spoken of is an instant fix. One conversation may not do it. It could take weeks of speaking with a peer or professional counselor before the issue is resolved. Meet with someone until you’re comfortable. Talk about it until it becomes normal. Eventually the memory will go from recalling vivid emotions, to only being a detailed snapshot of the event. There’s nothing wrong with remembering the incidents you’ve been a part of, but there’s a healthy way to do it. Let the memories be something you use to help others through their struggles, not a death sentence or hang up that cripples you in all aspects of life. Talk, grieve, and heal... it’s a must if you don’t want your memories to be more than just memories!