Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am an average Midwestern suburban firefighter writing about my own experiences with a very sorrowful event in my life in hopes of helping my fellow firefighters. I am not a trained clinician, nor do I have any sort of counseling background other than being a friendly ear at the firehouse. Whether experiencing personal loss yourself or helping a fellow firefighter deal with loss, understanding what grief is and how to deal with it can be critical. My attempt in the following paragraphs is to lay out a brief history of what happened in my family and then relay some personal discoveries I made with regards to grief and the grieving process. I truly hope that something contained herein can help.
As firefighters, we plan for worst-case scenarios. We equip for them. We train for them. We are dedicated to preventing them and committed to mitigating them. For a lot of us, one-third of our lives is lived in strategically placed firehouses waiting for the call to intervene in them. For some of us, we wait at home, volunteering to place ourselves in the middle of them. It’s what you and I have sworn an oath to do. But there is no other calling we’d rather fulfill. We love what we do and see the eternal value in the service we perform. We work this job while leading our own lives, managing our own families, and trying to draw a distinction between our work life and our home life--trying to keep a healthy balance yet keeping the worst of what we see to ourselves. Many of us have been doing this long enough that we have learned to process what we see on duty and have a bit of a separation between work and home. When we get a call, we are prepared. The tones sound, and we respond--generally, with some kind of information of what emergency awaits. And when it’s over and our shift is complete, we go home and leave “worst-case scenario” at the firehouse.
But how do we process “worst-case scenario” when it hits us at home? When we can’t go off duty and leave it at work? And in my case, as a father, my “worst case” was just that. The day my son died.
Heath was our third child. His birth was normal, and he passed all newborn checks with flying colors. His older two siblings loved him immediately and my wife Ann and I were fairly successful in dropping back from man-to man coverage into zone coverage as we negotiated the transition from two kids to three. She, as with many wives of firefighters, had mastered the art of being a single mom a third of the time. We were blessed and happy with our middle class, Midwestern, minivan-driving existence.
And then, when Heath was about a month old, Ann noticed his lips turning blue when he cried. She is a physician’s assistant, so she phoned the doctor she worked for, who was also Heath’s pediatrician. She took him in and nothing out of the ordinary was immediately noticed; but just to be safe, he recommended we get him checked out with a pediatric cardiologist. Upon this checkout, our one-week trip through hell began. I hadn’t gone to the appointment because we were sure it was nothing. I was on duty (of course) when Ann called and said they were referring us to a specialist based on what the checkup revealed. I left work and met them at the hospital. Ann knew it was bad by the look on the pediatric cardiologist’s face and the manner in which he was relaying the “worst-case scenario” news to his patient’s parents. She had, unfortunately, been forced to relay bad information to patients in the past. I was oblivious. Denial perhaps.
Then we went through a week of test after test, sleepless nights, being away from our other kids, watching him go into cardiac arrest and being revived, and going through one final desperate test to see what could be done. All of this agony only to learn there was nothing more that could be done was devastating. On June 22, 2010, Heath Adam Biddle passed away. My wife and I had to exit an out-of- state hospital without our son and with nowhere to go.
At this point in my career, I was a ladder company captain. I felt confident and competent, and I absolutely loved my job. I had a beautiful wife and family. Up until now, our lives were nauseatingly perfect. But at that moment, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as helpless in my life.
I went into what I describe as a “task-oriented fog.” I had to “do things” to occupy my mind and my body. I became very protective of my family--my understandably hurting wife, a very confused five-year-old big brother, and a sad three-year-old big sister. Telling them was awful. They hadn’t seen us in a week, so joy greeted us at the door. But then the question, “Where’s Heath?” The joy quickly faded and sorrow I had never known flooded our house.
We got through his funeral and burial. We had tremendous support from family and friends. My fire department was phenomenal, organizing food and offering us anything we needed. Our chief at the time told me to take as much time as I needed and not to worry about where the time would come from--everything you would expect from a fire department that truly gets what it means to be a firefighter.
As the days, weeks, and months pressed on, we felt like we were getting back to normal. Ann’s grief process was as you would expect. The saddest was at the time of his death, but as time went on, she began healing--partially because she had two other energetic little kids to raise and partially because women tend to know how to express, manage, and deal with their emotions. Guys, on the other hand, well.
Grief is not something I knew a lot about. Prior to losing Heath, I think I would have described grief as a “more intense sadness.” But, as I have come to understand, it is so much more than that.
About six months after his death, I had a very minor issue at the station that I had to work through with one of the firefighters. An issue that normally would have been a quick conversation and nothing more ever mentioned about it. But this time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had done something wrong with how I handled it. I was having these irrational thoughts about both of us getting fired due to my total incompetence and inability to lead. I’d never experienced anything like this. The rational side of my brain knew I was blowing it out of proportion. But there was something else working on me that I knew nothing about--anxiety. I was nauseous, short of breath, and petrified. After a couple days of feeling this way, I had this sudden, overwhelming vision of Heath in his little hospital bed. He was lying there with all of the tubes and machines hooked up. I had the overwhelming feeling of helplessness return. A massive flood of emotion fell over me. I’ve never wept like I did that night. But afterward, even though I felt much better, I was still very confused about what I had just experienced.
I made an appointment with my pastor, and he talked through how I had managed my emotions over the past six months. At that time, I didn’t realize I hadn’t. I had “soldiered on,” taking on the role of strong man so my wife could grieve. We thought we were working through it by focusing on the other two kids and making sure they were taken care of. She was doing well, and I thought I was too. But she was talking to me and I was doing a great job of listening. But I wasn’t doing a great job at processing my own grief.
What I learned in those sessions with my pastor is that grief is a physiological response in the body. A purging, if you will, of emotions. I equate it to the feeling of having a stomach virus. It needs to come out, whether you want it to or not! And you have the same amount of control over it as you do a stomach virus when it decides to come out.
After starting to understand what was going on, I think I started to heal a bit. Still, there would be these flashes of anxiety over the strangest things. It would last a few days, then go away. But I hated how much it affected my life, especially around my kids. I knew it was because I’d lost a son and it was probably part of the healing, but I also felt like there had to be a better way to deal with it. I finally made the toughest call I’ve ever made. I called the department Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. They were incredibly kind and supportive. The counselor I talked to was very helpful in allowing me to work through what was going on. It helped immensely.
It was there that the concept of “worst-case scenario” first occurred to me. I realized I was trained to deal with it at work but not at home, so my brain couldn’t process it correctly. I felt like because I helped people for a living, I should automatically know how to handle this. And I was so incredibly wrong! The only illustration I can describe that helped me capture this concept is to imagine a car crash. In one scenario, you are on duty and you are dispatched to the scene of a motor vehicle accident. You get onboard your well-equipped apparatus with your well-trained crew and respond. You arrive and go to work, putting your training and equipment to a successful conclusion--helping people and saving lives. In the other scenario with the same car crash, you happen upon it in your personal vehicle with your family onboard. You want to get out and help, but your kids are scared. Still, though, you are compelled to help. It’s what you do. It’s who you are. But when you get up there, you find there is nothing you can do. The damage is worse, and the patients’ conditions are dire. You have no equipment and no crew. You are alone and helpless in a situation you know you are trained for and, given different circumstances, should have been able to help. THAT is how I felt.
I came to realize that loss and grief may be a little tougher for those of us in this line of work. We have a built-in “call to action” mentality. It is our profession to help. So, when we can’t help, we feel that much worse. Then, in my case, to have it happen to your own family only compounds that feeling. To be helpless to change a tragic outcome, to feel responsible and patriarchal to lead your family up and out of that valley of despair, only to realize that you yourself can’t adequately cope with such hurt is absolutely crippling.
I wish, in the conclusion of this article, I could give you a one-size-fits-all package of how to deal with and be at peace with loss and grief. For me, it was several sessions with the EAP counselor, giving a few public talks about what we went through; a weekend faith-based retreat with my wife for couples who have lost a child; countless acts of kindness from friends and family; and, well, time. I offer the following thoughts as they relate to grief--specifically to members of our profession.
1. Six months is a big deal. From several sources and people I’ve spoken to who experienced similar tragedy, the five- to nine-month window following a tragedy is when you REALLY want to be watching for signs of struggle.
2. Men tend to want to be hands on. Up until 100 years ago, it was very common in societies for the men to get together and either build a casket, dig the grave, or whatever the culture did to address the care of the body. We don’t do that anymore. So, there is thought that this lack of involvement may play in to men not fully grieving. For me, I accepted the part-time job of mowing the cemetery where Heath is buried. And in a very primal way, I think it has helped me.
3. Be prepared for feelings of guilt. Even if the tragedy had nothing to do with anything you did, guilt is a very enigmatic but powerful emotion and can really mess with you. This was something that both Ann and I struggled with. Heath died of Alveolar Capillary Dysplasia, which is a very rare lung disease that has no known cause other than it is a genetic mutation. There is no cure. Nothing Ann nor I did caused it, yet we had immense feelings of guilt. Guilt that we didn’t take him to the right hospital. Guilt that we tried to move on with our lives. Guilt that we laughed for the first time in months. Guilt that we wanted to enjoy our other kids. Guilt that we weren’t crying every day. The list goes on. It was a process of working through each one of those feelings. And it just took time.
In a twist of unfortunate irony, as I was writing this article, another tragedy hit. My oldest son’s school was the latest in our nation’s unfortunate trend of school shootings. His school. His grade. I was off duty but responded anyway. On arrival, I saw him standing in line to board a bus for the high school, which had been established as an evacuation and staging area for the kids at the middle school. This calmed me immediately. Having gone through the loss of one son, the thought of two was numbing. After getting him home, I could feel a twinge of that same flood of emotions. It was different this time though. Besides the obvious fact that he was fine, I could feel my body and my mind processing it all. Open discussion with the entire family helped. Helping my own kids process helped. Talking to members of my department who were also there helped. Seeing the good in a tragic situation helped. The good as in the unparalleled heroics of a teacher and the galvanizing resolve of my community.
I also look back at the good that came from the tragedy of losing Heath. The close bond my family formed after. The increased closeness of my marriage to Ann. The deepening of my own faith. The sacredness I have for life. Health would have just turned eight this year, about the time I started writing this article. Although I miss him every day and I wonder so much what kind of little boy he’d be and what kind of man he’d have become, I will never be able to repay how much his little life taught me about my own.
Adam Biddle is a 20-year veteran of the Noblesville (IN) Fire Department, where he is a battalion chief of A shift. He has a BS in speech communications from Ball State University and a BS in fire safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati. In addition to various leadership and instructor roles within the department, he has also assisted with Hamilton County Firefighters, L4416 in their Peer Support Group. For the past seven years, he has been honored to serve as H.O.T. Site Safety Officer at FDIC International in Indianapolis. He and his wife Ann have three children--Aidan, Elyse, and Zachary, whom he considers his greatest accomplishment.