‘Everyone you meet right now is grieving’: COVID-19 has taken so much

How fire officers can manage the 5 stages of grief experienced during the pandemic

By Rachel Zambrano

A very wise therapist once told me that after every major event in a person’s life, there’s a grieving process. The event could be the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a wedding or a major car wreck. It didn’t matter whether the event was good or bad, a kind of grieving process followed.

Everyone we meet today is dealing with changes in their life because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Everyone is going through a grieving process of their own.

The current situation feels very similar to the weight we felt in the fire service immediately after the events of 9/11, but for many today, the weight is heavier and more drawn out.
The current situation feels very similar to the weight we felt in the fire service immediately after the events of 9/11, but for many today, the weight is heavier and more drawn out. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The current situation feels very similar to the weight we felt in the fire service immediately after the events of 9/11, but for many today, the weight is heavier and more drawn out. We haven’t gotten the chance to begin healing because we don’t know when this will end.

What’s more: We’ve lost our “normal.”

Managing the stages of grief

Everyone you meet right now is grieving.

The stages of grief are surfacing in our everyday life, but they go unrecognized because few realize what is happening. The stages of grief are as follows:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

For fire officers trying to manage their own grief or that of their crewmembers, the key to understanding what’s happening is also understanding that you can skip any or all the stages of grief, go in any order, or even revert to any stage after acceptance has been reached.

With this in mind, let’s review each stage.

Denial: Denial is how the brain “doses” itself reality in smaller portions to deal with the bigger portion of the truth. Denial surfaces as refusal to believe the science or choosing to believe an alternate version of the science. The science does change (anyone who’s been in the fire service long enough knows that things frequently change, change again, then change back to the way they were the first time), but it’s impartial, nonpolitical and doesn’t care whether you like it or not. The science is the science.

It should also be remembered that people want to feel hope. They don’t want things to be terrible with unknown terrible ahead. They want it to be like most movies: When bad things happen, there is positive resolution shortly ahead. Between the media and the science, this virus isn’t giving us much hope, though.

The best way that we can manage denial as officers is quietly, steadfastly holding to the science as it evolves, with the knowledge that what we know today will probably change within the month. We should not be forcing it in others’ faces, rather be educated on it and able to discuss the facts calmly when the subject arises, with a heightened awareness of when to change the subject. When something sensational comes out promising hope or making accusations against mainstream science, we should remain patient but educated. Most of the pseudoscience and sensational claims have been fully disproven within a week.

Anger: Anger in this context surfaces as short temper or may surface as bitterness or rage. As officers, we’ll see this directed in three primary places: 1) at supervisors (for the 40 policy changes in the last two weeks and inconsistent staffing procedures as people get sick), 2) at others who hold different/opposing beliefs about the virus and 3) at the people who, through irresponsible behavior, spread the virus and infect, sicken, disable or kill others.

Managing anger as officers is one of the harder, but most crucial tasks. You need to be a friend, officer and counselor rolled into one but balanced without overstepping and without trying to take on a job you don’t know how to do. You didn’t promote to order robots around; you promoted to manage a team of human beings who the job is going to affect.

You can’t force someone to understand why the chiefs are staffing the way they are or why people are behaving irresponsibly, but you still have to bring an angry person to a point where they can function as an effective member of a team.

One of the first things we can do as officers is derail a conversation that’s creating anger. Sometimes simply changing the path of a conversation or starting a conversation about an event that created the anger and “talking it out” is enough. When the anger stretches beyond the conversation or event and starts interfering with station behavior, the officer must decide, based on what they know of their personnel, if they need to intervene.

If a subordinate is resilient enough or has the tools in the toolbox to “get over” the anger on their own, no intervention may be necessary, but when the anger persists, an officer must make the subordinate aware their behavior is affecting the team. Sometimes, and hopefully, this is enough. But this also requires that a firefighter be mentally in the right place to hear the words from their officer. It’s not always a question of maturity; it’s frequently a question of resiliency.

When the situation can no longer be managed between the officer and subordinate, outside resources are necessary. More on this in a bit.

Bargaining: Bargaining appears as “what if” and “if only” statements. We’re going to hear a lot of these during the pandemic. “If only I’d worn a mask on that call.” “If only I hadn’t been staying at home.” “What if we had been in service instead of them?” This stage simply postpones the pain.

Depression: Depression is the most dangerous stage. It’s often silent. This is where you’ll find a lot of first responders right now … if we aren’t angry. We’re avoiding social media and the people that are outright denying the things we’re seeing. We’re avoiding family, friends and the news. The things and events we do to “deal” with our emotions are being canceled. Vacation days away from work are being canceled, and we’re working more.

Officers may recognize this as subordinates isolating themselves more than usual, avoiding social media more than usual, or simply not engaging in conversation as much. Officers have a duty to observe their subordinates and “see” them. Some intervention is possible if depression starts becoming a concern, but the bottom line is that if depression is affecting the behavior of a subordinate, outside resources should be sought.

It is hard to recognize when depression becomes dangerous, which is often within the scope of a peer support team. Supervisors, officers or peers are not prepared or equipped to handle anger or depression in a subordinate or a peer. If a member’s behavior is affecting themselves or their crew, cannot or will not be changed by the member, and persists beyond the incident or situation that caused it, a qualified peer support team, therapist or similar resource must be called in. Most importantly, concerns must be voiced, and all concerns should be taken seriously.

In this uncertain time, it is recommended that every first responder agency have access to mental health resources and a plan to immediately access them. If you don’t currently have a peer support team, this should be an immediate task on your priority list.

Acceptance: This one is hard. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I’m OK with people sick or dying.” Acceptance is, “People are getting sick and dying, but I’m going to be OK – and I’m going to do my best, within my control, to help others be OK.” This is the hard part for first responders because we simply don’t know if we’re going to be OK, or if our families and friends are going to be OK.

After most large-scale tragedies, we have a stopping point. We have something to work toward. Right now, we don’t have an end in sight. It’s what’s most unique about the pandemic and also what makes it hardest – and it’s what makes it hardest to reach acceptance.

I’ve heard several first responders say that once they’ve been sick and recovered, there’s a huge weight off their shoulders. Perhaps it’s because they can finally reach a point where they can feel confident that they aren’t going to die. They might reach an acceptance that, “a lot of people are going to be sick, and some are going to die, but I’m going to do my best to help prevent that – and I’m not going to die.”

Beyond feeling OK physically, there’s also the mental aspect of this process, reaching a point where we understand and accept what could happen – a stressful acceptance. While many of us signed up for the job knowing that there was a risk, it has never been so real or threatening for most of us, without even leaving the station before.

Officers, your crews may not ever reach this point. They’ll give you their best and work their hardest, but they may never reach a point where they’re mentally or physically OK with what this pandemic is going to cost us, until well after it’s over, and maybe not even then. We often struggle with accepting our losses, either on calls, at work or in our personal lives outside of an international pandemic. This is much more amplified and will cost us more, so the acceptance of those facts is particularly difficult.

Further, it should be noted that firefighters are task-oriented and want to complete the tasks set before us. While task/goal accomplishment may appear to be acceptance, it isn’t. What’s really happening is that we’re setting aside how we feel and doing what we always do – what we have to do. It’s how we get to the next call, the next task, the next moment. It isn’t acceptance, rather, it’s autopilot or survival mode while the mind moves through life and the stages of grief.

What officers can control

One of the biggest tools we can provide to our firefighters right now is a sense of certainty or control over the things we can control. In the insane amount of changes to policies in the first two weeks of the pandemic, we saw a lot of changes to how we ran house medical calls. But there were aspects that we could control.

For example, in order to give some stability to my crew in a constantly changing environment, I assigned roles for medical calls by seat – and they haven’t changed since March. As the highest credentialed provider on the engine, I’m running primary (with a few exceptions) on all medical calls, my engineer is recording all the vitals and demographic data, the firefighter on the driver’s side is in charge of decontamination after the call, and the firefighter on the officer’s side is my backup on the medical call. My crew is really good at adapting roles as the changes, but otherwise, this has been our framework since March.

How can you, as a supervisor, give back some control or certainty to your crews?

Help your members for the long haul

Everyone is grieving, and we have no idea when, or if, we’ll be able to start returning to some kind of normal.

We should treat everyone with compassion. Most people, both inside and outside the fire service, feel wounded right now. As an officer, give control back to your crews in some way, and be an advocate for their mental health and first responder resiliency.

We’re in this for the long haul.

About the Author

Rachel Zambrano is a lieutenant with Lake Travis Fire Rescue, west of Austin, Texas. She’s been a career firefighter for more than 20 years. Zambrano holds an associate degree in fire protection and bachelor’s degrees in emergency management and psychology. She also works part-time as an endurance sports coach and compete in Ironman/half-Ironman/marathon events. She was became the first female in the world to complete a marathon in firefighting gear.

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