‘We regret to inform you’: How to support LODD families
Two military-focused books can help fire service leaders support the families of fallen firefighters
Over the decades that I’ve been a chief officer, the hardest single task I’ve ever had to do was walk down the hallway of a hospital and tell a family that their firefighter husband, father – and my friend – died in the line of duty. It is a task that I hope you never have to perform, but it is one for which you should be prepared.
Coping with loss: Fire service and military parallels
The grieving process for the family and department members can vary from individual to individual, but no one touched by a line-of-duty death (LODD) is ever quite the same, nor should we be.
Several organizations, such as the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Towers Foundation, are doing great work to help the families of fallen firefighters; however, there is still a void that remains when those who grieve face certain day-to-day challenges or even uncertainty during difficult times of year, like the holidays. The NFFF offers a Holiday Season Toolkit for Fire Hero Families to help during the holidays.
There are other resources that I believe can help as well, a couple of which come from the experience of military families.
I have known Joanne Steen, an author and grief counselor, for over 10 years. In 2006, she coauthored the book “Military Widow – A Survival Guide.” Joanne knows this grief personally, as her first husband was killed in an aircraft training accident.
My first encounter with an LODD was that of a fellow Air Force officer, and one of my closest friends. Greg and I had gone through university together and were commissioned and married to our college sweethearts on the same day. While piloting an F-4, Greg was hit by a surface-to-air missile over North Vietnam and was lost in the South China Sea.
When I first read “Military Widow,” I wished that I had the book when I was with Greg’s wife and daughter years later, meeting part of his family at a traveling version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Over the years, I realized that this grief is one of the parallels between the military and the fire service.
In 2019, Joanne wrote her second book, “We Regret to Inform You,” aimed at the parents and immediate family of a military LODD. Parents and family grieve differently than a spouse and face different challenges. And of course, the grief of no two families are exactly alike, as evidenced by fire service experience.
Over a decade ago, my department lost two firefighters at a residential fire when a kitchen floor collapsed, and they fell into an intense fire in the basement. One family remains in touch with the department and attends events, such as our annual Memorial Ceremony for a total of five fallen firefighters over our 83-year history. The other family almost immediately after the funerals withdrew from any contact with the department. “We Regret to Inform You” covers both of these types of family contingencies and grief processes.
Both “Military Widow” and “We Regret to Inform You” offer practical ways for widows, parents and family to cope with ongoing grief, perhaps years after we in the fire service have had contact with them. This grief, or in some cases guilt, may flare up years after the LODD.
One topic addressed is how a loved one copes with the place in the house that displayed the fallen member’s awards, plaques or medals that represent the milestones in their careers. On the one hand, such a place represents some of the best accomplishments of their loved one; on the other hand, is there a timeframe in which the loved one should take down such awards as part of moving on in the grief process?
A spouse might question when it is OK to date again. A parent might question when it is OK to redecorate or convert their son or daughter’s bedroom into another use. These books are designed to be as much a reference to help cope with these questions as they are an initial read.
Offering support through difficult moments
I can tell you that as a firefighter, officer, state fire marshal and fire chief, I have attended at least 15 or 20 LODD funerals. When I was the state fire marshal for Ohio, we presented a state flag to each family on behalf of the governor and the citizens of Ohio. Most of the time, I did so personally.
While that was an outward and visible gesture that hopefully provided some comfort to the family, it was a temporal, and not a long-lasting comfort. How much I wish that I might have had a copy of Joanne’s books to present to the spouse or family as well.
It is my hope that Joanne may soon turn her attention to the fire service and our needs when it comes to handling grief at the loss of a firefighter. If she does, I am sure it will make our hardest task a bit easier to understand and perform.