Grieving is different for first responders and alcoholics

How could somebody who has not witnessed what I have ever understand my reaction to the news of the death of my friend?


By Michael Morse

The responder’s reaction

I found out that Pete had died through a phone call. I guess that is better than learning by Facebook. My reaction to the news was typical for me.

“Oh well.”

What I said was instinct. It was my mind’s way of articulating something to say that was non-committal, unemotional and safe. I do not allow people to see me sweat. I refuse to. I don’t want other people to see me suffer, and that is exactly what happened as soon as I hung up the phone.

In my career, I saw lots of people die, mostly strangers, but a few friends as well. Usually when I saw their stiff or mangled bodies and smelled the death in the room, I was among other firefighters, cops, and EMTs. I felt for pulses, decided whether or not to start CPR, and gathered the pertinent facts, stifled any and all emotion that came up, saving it for later. More times than I realized, later never came.

Until now.

I liked Pete. He was about my age, played guitar in some local bands, knew all my favorite obscure musicians, and understood me. He nodded his head when I mentioned that the Sex Pistols were the dumbest geniuses in Rock and Roll history. He knew that it was all about the attitude, rather than musical proficiency. Better yet, he actually was proficient at his instrument, and could belt out a three-chord, face-melting anthem full of youthful angst just as well as he could perform a classically inspired Claptonesque blues riff from heaven.

But he died alone, body full of pills and alcohol in a rented room above a bar.

The last time I saw him alive he reached out to me, asked if I wanted to jam, and thought we might be good enough to get a band going. At the time he was struggling to hold on to his sobriety, wanted it badly but was afraid of falling back into his old habits. It was boredom that was driving his thinking back to the pills and bottle. Some people are wired that way; their normal daily routine simply too dull to live with, so they take their consciousness to all kinds of different places with the help of controlled substances. I know; I did it for years.

I instinctually knew that Pete was going downhill, and did nothing to help him. Too frail in my own sobriety to play with the fire that I saw in Pete. I knew that if he picked up old habits, he would die, and so did he. And so he did. I chose to live, and not follow my friend on his path of destruction. By turning my back on him I saved my own life, but at what cost?

I hate that I did nothing.

Sure, I can kid myself, and give the old self-preservation speech to whoever will listen, but the person who needs to listen most is done with it. I know what I did. I know that I let my friend die. I wonder if I would have if I didn’t have the baggage of twenty-five years of dead bodies to carry around with me every day. I wonder if I would have maintained my compassion if I hadn’t seen too much, blocked too much and strangled the emotions needed to process the deaths of the hundreds of human beings that died on my watch. That compassion may very well have been Pete’s salvation.

I wonder.

The recovering alcoholic’s reaction

Nothing like a good old death call to conjure up some demons of the past. In the deafening silence that surrounded me when I hung up the phone I was able to process what I said to the person who told me that Pete had died.

“Oh well.”

Life goes on for me, I think was the message in those two words, as cruel as they may have sounded to the person on the other end of the phone. I’m fairly certain that I lost another friend that day, not just Pete. How could somebody who has not witnessed what I have ever understand my reaction to the news? Most healthy people, even recovering alcoholics and drug addicts maintain a shred of humanity, and are not uncomfortable expressing appropriate grief when losing somebody close. In all likelihood, even the police, firefighters, and EMTs that I work with who are not recovering alcoholics allow grief to come to the surface. Being a recovering alcoholic and a firefighter puts me in a vice; I simply cannot express myself the way I need to, until I am alone, which is the very last place I should be when the walls close in, and the horror of what I found out comes crashing upon me.

I failed Pete. I failed the friend who shared the news. But I’ll be damned if I will allow myself to continue to fail myself. I did the only thing I could think of. I went to an AA meeting, held on to my secret misery during 90% of it, conjured up the courage to open up and tell the people who had come to share their strength, experience and hope, and just before the meeting ended, at the last second, spoke for five minutes about exactly what I was going through. Nobody seemed to mind that the meeting ended late.

When I was done speaking, and looked around the room I saw understanding, gratitude and friends.

We ended the meeting, put our hands together and said a prayer for Pete. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I would bet that most of the people there probably included me.

Captain Michael Morse worked as a firefighter and EMT for 23 years in the urban neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island. He is a popular writer among firefighters and EMS workers. His books, Responding, Mr. Wilson Makes it Home, and Rescuing Providence, are filled with compassionate insight from the field. Morse blogs from the Fire/EMS experience for American Addiction Centers in conjunction with the Fire Services Member Assistance Program, and the Share the Load 24/7 Helpline at 1-888-731-FIRE (3473).

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