Learning from grief
When you are in this business, you lose people. Most of them are people that you do not know but there is the occasional loss of a fellow firefighter or law enforcement officer. Death is part of the game which is why I think scary skulls permeate so much of the tattoos and decals and shirts we all purchase each year.
COVID was rough on me. I lost many friends and acquaintances during the pandemic and the frustration level rose when I could not even attend real memorial services. I am sure many of you felt the same way. It was a strange time and it seems like we all lost 18 months and are now coming out of a strange dream.
Even now, as I attend shows and conferences, I am still discovering that people died during COVID and I am only now finding out.
On top of all that, the last 6 years has been a run of life reminding me of my mortality. You can say it is because I am old, and you would be correct; the older you get, the more your friends die.
Last week I spent hours sitting at the grave of one of my closest friends on the fifth anniversary of his death. A fire chief with a huge heart.
This week I participated in the procession of a fallen officer (Dep. Bosecker) returning to his hometown. On Saturday I witnessed over 2000 officers gather to remember this brave man who died so suddenly while doing his job. Of course, it was a tough week as I had already been dealing with a very close personal friend in hospice, another officer as well.
During the week I received notice that an old childhood friend (Lori) had passed away. In trying to reach out to other mutual friends, I discovered yet another friend (Ken) had just passed away suddenly. Trying to assist in contacting old classmates, I asked, “Has anyone called Tami yet?” to which the reply was “She passed away in January”.
For a long time, the death notices of friends, colleagues and co-workers were rare, but as 2020 neared, the numbers grew.
One friend, then another. As for co-workers, most were due to on-the-job instances, but there was the PTSD-related suicides, cancer and heart attacks.
Then COVID came and began to sift my circle and I watched the loss become more frequent. Finally, the strongest person I had ever known stepped into eternity; my father.
It is strange this thing called death. It is quiet for the most part and completely rude. It enters where it wants, takes who it wants and leaves nothing but holes in what was once our personal life tapestries. Every once in a while my network will operate such that I am notified of a person passing with whom I had little to no contact. These people are usually those I meet at conferences or have met when I do trainings. My initial reaction is usually small as there is not the grand heart strings attached, but as the moments pass I begin to think about that person, their family and the loss that must be felt in their own world. I suddenly am forced to believe that I have indeed suffered some kind of loss because we were connected, even if just a little, and life is nothing if not about connecting.
Many of these connections turn out to be transitory, however, and when they disappear they leave small holes in our lives, which we often don’t notice until much later. Of course, in the case of this week and with my father, the holes are sometimes huge.
All that to say, friends and colleagues my age have been dropping and mortality draws closer.
I have experienced profound sadness recently thinking about these connections that have become memories. When genuine friends and colleagues pass away, that physical connection of presence, geography, activities, visions, work etc. all fades from view.
Every departure leaves a sense of loss, big or small. Loss is a part of life. Those closest to me have reminded me that this is normal and that is okay to be saddened. What is not okay is the regret that I have been feeling about those relationships I did not treasure, nurture or allow to grow. Those are the worst losses because I am left with what could have been. Maybe that is where the lesson lies, huh?
Are we doing all we can with the connections we have? Have we allowed social media to govern when and if we “poke” a relationship awake? Have we grown distant perhaps over differences of politics or opinion?
Once again, like many times before I have been reminded that life is fleeting. Whether it be a bullet from a madman or a car out of control, whether it be a cancerous monster or a simple irregular heartbeat, life is tentative at best.
Dealing with grief and loss is a reality we all must confront at some point. Unfortunately for me, it appears to be much more often than ever before. The experience of grief is different for everyone, and it has no timetable. I am discovering that there are things we can learn from grief.
Grief teaches us that loss is inevitable.
Grief teaches us not to take loved ones for granted.
Grief teaches us about our faith.
Grief teaches us that we should live every day creating memories that will comfort us after our loved ones are gone.
Grief can teach us how to find our purpose or how to find new purpose.
If you are going through something similar, I am here to tell you that I have spent a lot of time on the phone with friends and have discovered that this is not new, it is actually quite common and you do survive the sadness.