I was 12 years old when my uncle – a volunteer firefighter – lost his life in the line of duty while fighting a residential fire. He was in his early 40s and was the father of a teenaged son. My mom was his big sister, and they were always close. Since my father had died just few years before, he was a regular fixture in our home, always stopping by to fix or tinker, and to keep an eye on things.
Our family was heartbroken, yet proud of his love for helping people and keeping them safe. He received full firefighter honors, with an honor guard at his casket, and long parade of firetrucks at his funeral, and all the accolades bestowed upon a hero.
I remember feeling sad and rather bewildered by all this. He was doing something noble and good…yet lost his life in the pursuit. And all the fuss the honor guard and media coverage. This mourning period was sacred to our family, yet strangers were quick to offer praise and gratitude for his sacrifice. I grieved for my mother, my cousin, my grandmother, and my sister who had him in their lives longer than I, with more memories to forever hold in their hearts.
Grief for Our Heroes
Regrettably, through the years, our community has grieved many times when firefighters lose their lives doing what they love. Those five firefighters from South Buffalo whose lives were taken on South Division Street in 1983, the two firefighters who died when the structure collapsed in 2009, and now Jason Arno, a young dad and gourmet chef who lost his life in a downtown Buffalo fire all died tragic, heroic deaths.
Public television’s iconic Mr. Rogers often celebrated the roles of community helpers in his gentle and loving programs. He said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
How to Help
But what do you say to a child when a helper has fallen and our community is grieving this loss? The International Association of Firefighters shares some advice on how to talk to little ones.
Consider their age – Our littlest ones – babies to five years of age usually don’t have a real understanding of death and will not have an awareness of the event of the community grief or trauma that follows. What they need is their usual routine and maybe some extra comfort and assurance from their loved ones.
Older kids – six to 11 years old – may have heard about the incident and may be engaged in some discussions or activities in their school to rally community support. Ask they child what they may have heard, confirm broad facts, and limit exposure to media and social media where more graphic details may be shared. Offer assurance and answer any questions frankly in an age-appropriate way.
Teens understand that death is real, inevitable, and irreversible. It’s a critical time in their emotional development and it’s an opportunity for adults to model important behaviors. Remind teens that it’s normal to be sad or angry.
Acknowledge your own feelings, too.
Monitor access to news and social media and impose limits if it’s too overwhelming.
Deep Breath, Big Hugs
Above all kids of any age just need to feel that they are safe. Again, Mr. Rogers said it best, “Where there is pain or sorrow in our children’s lives, as there is bound to be, there is often no way we can make it go away. Often our quiet availability is just what children need…our reassuring presence may be enough to help them find inner resources of their own.”
There are time when reassuring parental words aren’t enough: Spectrum Health’s counselors and Buffalo H.O.P.E. crisis clinicians are a just a phone call away.
Sr. Manager of Public Relations