Asking for what you need
How to communicate with your family after a tragedy or difficult shift
“EMS has crushed my soul, but I love the people I work with. They are the only ones that understand.” So reads a tweet from an EMT.
It’s easier to reset and recover with a little support from others. Maybe you ran a terrible call, had a horrible shift, or saw a tragic story on the news and thought, maybe next time, I’ll be the firefighter dealing with that. While your work colleagues can relate and provide support based on shared knowledge and experience, they are not the only people in your life. Your non-firefighter family – the “normal” people in your life – can help too.
In too many fire families, the partners, spouses, kids and parents of firefighters feel left out as their loved one’s mutter, “you wouldn’t understand” or “I want to protect you from the suffering I see every day.”
While it’s natural to want to process the worst stuff with folks who have been there, your family health and your support system will improve by bringing the rest of your family – however you define family – into the circle. Contrary to what many firefighters think, people do not need to “understand” or “know what it’s like” to be helpful. Cutting your loved ones off when you’re going through something difficult contributes to family stress, divorce and estrangement. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Building your non-firefighter family support system involves a few key elements:
First you need to know, what does good support look like for you? Are you someone who needs quiet time to think things through on your own? Do you need to talk it out uninterrupted while someone just listens? Do you need to hit the gym or go for a run before you talk with anyone? Do you want someone to distract you with stories about their day? It’s helpful to know what you need before you ask for it. Keep in mind that your needs will likely be different for different situations. It’s always good to pause before you ask and check in with yourself asking the question, “What do I really need right now?”
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It helps to build your support system with a family conversation. Do this at a time when you don’t have any needs or issues to process. Let them know that you’d like to build a family that supports each other in all kinds of situations. Tell them you’d like our family to be a safe place where all of us can get and give the kind of support that works best for us.
Share with them the kinds of calls that get to you more than others. For me, it was always the cases where someone vulnerable was beat up, abused, killed or raped. Then talk about the kinds of support you might need after a rough shift and the kind of support you’d like to ask for from them. Make this as specific as you can. Rather than saying, “I just need space” say, “I need 30-40 minutes in the back yard by myself to decompress and then I’ll reconnect with you.”
Then ask them what kinds of things happen in their lives that might inspire them to need support. Ask them how you can best support them when they need it. Most people who have this conversation are surprised to discover new ways they can support folks they have known and lived with for years.
See if you can get everyone to agree to ask each other for the kind of support they need when they need it, and to offer each other the kind of support they ask for.
Then practice, practice, practice. The more you each check in with yourselves to see what you really need, then ask for exactly what you want and provide support in kind to others, the stronger your support system will become.
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Telling my members, my wife and myself that I was OK worked for a while, then it all caught up with me on an incident scene
If you’re not sure where to start, psychiatrist Daniel Segal, MD, the director of the Mindsight Institute at UCLA, reminds us of the three things we need to feel secure in the world:
- To be seen. To have others see you for who you are right now. Empathy, the ability to recognize emotions in others is one of the most important skills we can have as a human.
- To be safe. The world is full of threats, from active shooters to monkeypox. Being and feeling safe is key. This is especially true for children who might not have developed the rational ability to separate a threat they have heard about from an actual threat in their immediate environment.
- To be soothed. Maybe it’s a hug or someone saying, “I’m sorry you’re feeling bad, that was an awful situation.” This is where therapy dogs do their best work. From my experience, 98% of dogs are soothing to pet and throw a ball for.
This equation is a simple reminder of what we all need during these crazy times in our world. Seen + Safe + Soothed = Secure
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