Grieving with Firefighter Families

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This is where all of us can come together to help: the aftermath. (Bill Carey photo)

The death of a firefighter is painful. Wait, painful isn’t a strong enough word. I can’t think of a word that does it justice. When we live with each other for approximately a third of our life, it makes most emotions even stronger. When one of us has family issues, it affects all of us. When one of us has a new addition to the family, has a child go off to college, or has a child who is finally getting married, we all celebrate together. When one of the guys or girls on our shift at our station nails a promotional exam and gets at the top of the next promotional list, we are all proud!

On Monday, October 30, around the time I was heading to bed, I got a phone call that stopped me in my tracks. I knew from the caller ID that it was a call from the head of our CISM team, so I was prepared for negative news. However, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. A young man who had worked for us for only a couple of years had been found dead in his house. Marc Rice was gone. Marc was one of the best! That’s not just something people say about him because he is no longer with us and they are trying to be nice. He was one of our best, and he was destined for great things in the fire service not only in Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue (PBCFR) but in America!

The first thing that happened was a great decision was made by our CISM leader. He knew how close I was to Marc, so he told me to stay away from the scene, so I could focus on my own emotions instead of taking care of everyone else’s emotions. I was upset that I was not able to go help, but it quickly proved to be the right decision. That is an important lesson for all to learn. Be self-aware enough to know when you need to be involved in assisting with a tough incident. Know when you need to pass along the responsibility to someone else. Know when you need to step up and take the responsibility so someone else can take a step back.

I talked to Marc’s dad, Ralph, that night, and I texted with many other firefighters who loved Marc. There were lots of tears shed over losing someone we all loved so dearly. I wasn’t sure what to do because I normally am the one responding to this type of scene to offer emotional and spiritual assistance to our brothers and sisters. So, I prayed, and I cried, and I remembered. I also watched the rest of the Broncos and Chiefs game while I was communicating with everyone. That may seem like a weird detail to add, so let me explain. Marc and I typically busted on each other over the games played between his Broncos and my Chiefs. We owed each other a few lunches over the results. We were planning a trip to see a game together. It was a game that I watched differently as I thought about my friend. It was a reminder that those who are dealing with a difficult loss must find something that will assist them in their grieving process.

One of our firefighters called the death of Marc Rice a “punch in the gut to the entire department.” That sounds like a description which could be made regarding any firefighter death, but this was different. Marc’s death impacted even the most senior members of our department. With only a few years on the job, he had made a difference in the life of each person with whom he had interacted. He was just that kind of guy. When a firefighter who has already retired with more than 30 years on the job and who has only worked with Marc a handful of times cries while describing how much this one hurts . . . nothing more needs to be said. This young man was great! He was taken from us far too soon, and his death hurt.

The rest of that week was crazy to say the least. There were details to be worked out with the medical examiner. There were phone calls and e-mails to be made to the department. There were details to be worked out with the honor guard and pipes and drums, and there were many memorial service plans to be made. Amid all these details, there was also the need for so many of us to work through the stages of grief. Each of us were finding our own way to do it, and some were more successful at this process than others. A couple of days after Marc’s death, his parents Ralph and Annamarie came into town. Picking this amazing couple up at the airport was more difficult than I had imagined. I pulled up to the arrival curb and watched these beautiful parents break down and weep upon seeing the PBCFR vehicle. I got out of the vehicle, and I hugged both. Then we got into the truck and drove to their hotel. We talked, we laughed, and we cried–not in any order. There were times when each of us was expressing a different emotion.

We arrived about an hour later at the hotel. When people are hurting this badly, often it shows. The young man who opened the doors for us at the hotel knew something was wrong right away, and he put his hand on Annamarie’s shoulder and said, “We’ll help with whatever we can.” He shook my hand as I got into the truck and said, “We will take care of them.” It was a great reminder that we all have an opportunity to help in large and small ways.

The meeting with Ralph and Annamarie at the funeral home the next day was another difficult time. There were decisions being made that no parent should ever have to make. Every piece of paper to be signed brought a wave of emotion. Looking through pictures and choosing a passage of Scripture was overwhelming. We then drove to Marc’s house to look through his things and try to wrap our heads around what had taken place. It was heart-wrenching. We spent a few hours at the house. We looked at pictures. We found old letters and cards he had saved. We talked. We hugged. We cried. As the chaplain and as a firefighter who was trying to mourn, I tried to stay out of the way, so they could grieve in their own way but still be available if they needed me. As I walked into Marc’s bedroom before we were about to leave the house, I saw Annamarie lying on Marc’s bed, holding his pillow. She said, “I wasn’t happy about coming here, but this place brings me comfort.” She found something comforting in a place she didn’t think it was possible. This brings me to another important point: Grieving is messy and individual. Each person will grieve in their own way. Let them do that. Don’t tell people not to grieve, and don’t tell them how to grieve.

A critical portion of the week came at the viewing. Marc’s family decided to do a private viewing with a few of Marc’s closest friends. Once again, I found myself grieving and helping others grieve. There are not many things tougher than watching firefighters stand at the back of a room and weep over their loss, unsure of how to mourn appropriately. One of our firefighters there that day told me this was his first funeral or viewing since burying his best friend years ago. Some of the strongest men and women I know were struggling to comprehend what was happening. This group handled it so well despite it all, and they were an encouragement to Marc’s family. They were also an amazing representation of Marc’s legacy and reputation.

The culmination of the week was the memorial service for Marc. There is very little in life more impressive and powerful than a fire department saying goodbye to one of their own. The ceremonial portions are an obvious sign of respect, but just the sheer number of uniformed men and women and apparatus reflects honor to the member and to his family. The warning I gave to the family was to be aware of what was going to take place when they entered following Marc’s coffin. Lined along that pathway into the church were rows of personnel dressed in Class A uniform. It was already a powerful picture, but the added difficulty was observing all the firefighters weeping openly while they saluted their fallen brother.

After the service, I dropped off the family to the luncheon reception. We wept and laughed and told some more stories on the drive. I left very shortly after to fly to the National Fire Academy for a two-week class to finish off my fourth year of the Executive Fire Officer Program. I was asleep before the flight had even taken off. Exhaustion for those walking through the death of a friend or loved one is a real issue. Be aware of it, and rest when you can find time to do so. When I arrived in Baltimore, I was picked up by a friend and classmate who drove me to Emmitsburg. On the drive, I began processing the week that had passed. My friend became a sounding board on that drive. He didn’t have to say much. He listened and asked questions. After arriving on campus, we went to dinner at Ott’s. It is the local firefighter hangout that has a wall of firefighter patches. It was the perfect location to finish the day, and we completed it by toasting Marc. He didn’t know Marc, but he didn’t need to know him to toast a brother firefighter and celebrate his life.  

From the moment the memorial service ended and for the next few days, I received phone calls and texts from firefighters in my department who were checking to make sure I was okay. I mention that because it marks a meaningful change in the culture of the fire service and our department. My role as the chaplain has always been to take care of the family who has suffered a loss. The Rice family was my focus, and we had said goodbye to Marc the right way while assisting his family. But for the first time that I can remember, people from all over my fire department were checking on each other. Part of the reason was the culture change, but part of the reason was because Marc made that kind of impact. Everyone felt the effect of his death, and everyone knew that a lot of people needed help to walk through this loss.

Ralph and Annamarie planned a second memorial service in Denver, so family and friends could say a final goodbye in Marc’s hometown. The family was flying back home prior to the completion of Marc’s cremation so they were not going to be able to take him back home with them. One of the interesting facts we had learned during the funeral planning process is that cremains can only be mailed via the U.S. Postal Service. When our firefighters heard about this, the response was immediate and clear: He was not going home via the mail system. Seven of our brothers bought plane tickets and brought Marc home to Denver. We were dressed in our Class A uniforms as we brought Marc to his family and to his home. It was difficult for everyone, but it was one of the proudest moments of my career: Our brother had been brought home with dignity and honor.

On the way to the house that night, the firefighters and Marc’s sister, Christina, stopped to grab dinner for all of us to share that evening. They walked into the restaurant, and immediately all talking, and activity stopped. The firefighters from the Arvada (CO) Fire Protection District had basically taken over the restaurant, and when our firefighters walked in, they raised their glasses in a toast to Marc. Even as I write this, I cry thinking about the way they honored our brother. After arriving at the house and placing Marc’s urn on the mantle, we prayed. Then we ate; told stories; and hugged, and laughed, and cried. When the long day ended, we went to bed and prepared for the next long day ahead.

The memorial service was at Red Rocks. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it was the perfect place to say a final goodbye. As the time for the service approached, I started to see firefighters, pipes and drums, honor guard, and an engine from the local fire department. Fire service “family” took on a whole new meaning for me. I would like to thank the Arvada Fire Protection District for providing a way in which to honor Marc. Their personnel and ceremonial participation impacted all of us.

The service took place. Amazing stories were shared. Tears were shed. Laughter occurred repeatedly. The service finished with the pipes and drums and honor guard paying their final respects. I was asked to close the service after this ceremony, and I made it through about two sentences without crying. Then the floodgates opened. It started when I began thanking the fire department personnel who came to pay their respects and when I thanked our brothers who brought Marc home with honor. It was an overwhelming thought, and I just couldn’t contain it anymore. Fire service family had come to life and had changed all of us.

The service concluded, and we walked out onto the balcony overlooking the valley. Each person was given a glass of champagne, and we toasted Marc one last time as the most beautiful sunset set the backdrop. Marc’s brother-in-law, Bryce, led that final amazing toast with these words:

“The last time I saw Marc, I had the privilege to walk beside him honoring all of our fallen brothers and sisters of 9/11. I never imagined that my next walk would be honoring him. Marc, I wish I had one more chance to talk to you and give you a hug. I would tell you how proud of you I am and how honored I was to be your brother. I tip my hat to you for the genuine friend you were to many. I shake your hand for the man you were. I salute you for the firefighter that your peers and I looked up to. I hug you for the uncle you were to Henry and accepting me as a brother. Many of the greats performed on this stage, but today we celebrate one of the greatest people we had in our lives. Cue the angels and the harp. Cue the guitar and the piano. Cue the pipes and the drums. We have front row tickets to the greatest concert in history. Marc, your song will forever play in our hearts. I love you brother.”

We left that beautiful setting after that great toast, and we started sharing more Marc stories. It was painful and beautiful. It was amazing and difficult. It helped, but it hurt so badly.

As all of us began catching our flights to head back home the next day, we started to get back to our new normal. All the services and all the stories were great, but it didn’t change the fact that we lost a brother. We all kept texting and calling each other in the days that followed. Ralph, Annamarie, Christina, Bryce, and Henry (Marc’s nephew) have become a part of the fire department family. We will continue to reach out to each other to help each other however we can.

Then life continues . . .

And this is where it gets difficult. After a friend or family member dies and the funeral is over, everybody goes back to their normal schedule. The family is left to try and begin this “new normal” life, while everyone else goes back to the routine of life. How do we balance this?

I did not write this article because my department experienced something so unique that no other department could understand it. This story could have been written by any number of chaplains who have experienced a similar loss in their department. I wrote it because it was therapeutic to me to journal what had taken place as we took care of Marc’s family and friends in the aftermath of his death.

This is where all of us can come together to help: the aftermath. As days and weeks go by, and the normalcy of life takes over, the family still needs us, but we have other responsibilities that take the place of the time we had been dedicating to comforting the family. You are not expected to be there at any given moment for the rest of your life. Just be available and ready to help when you can do so. Write a letter or a text to the family when they or the deceased individual comes to your mind. Make a phone call to those who are still hurting. If you are struggling with the loss weeks later, let them know. When a funny story comes to mind and you are overwhelmed with laughter and then unexplained tears, share the story with the family. When you see a friend or family member struggling with the loss, just show up and be present for them. Give them a hug. Take them out for coffee, a drink, or a meal. Just be flexible and help where you can. AND TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF! Allow yourself the time to mourn. Allow yourself the space to mourn. Allow yourself to mourn while you encourage and comfort others. You are not expected to be a robot and take care of everyone else while you shut off all emotions.

When death takes place, there is no formula to take care of everyone. It’s difficult, and it is supposed to be. It hurts, and the level of hurt is elevated when it is a person who has made an impact. You can’t prepare for every possible emotion or difficult part of the journey, but you can begin to at least make plans for potential issues. Have some sort of a plan. Have a team of people ready to help. Take classes and training on how to assist people during loss. Train your personnel on what they can and shouldn’t say to a family who is suffering. Have a list of ways people can help when death occurs. You don’t have to have all the plans perfectly in order but have a plan. At least talk about it before it happens. Don’t be surprised, and don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed.

We can’t run from these hurts and difficult losses. The families who suffer shouldn’t be expected to do this on their own. We can make sure the fire department assists our families and steps in wherever we can help. And in the end, we add to our family. We add to our experiences, and we lift each other up in ways we never thought imaginable. Marc was one of the only firefighters I know who followed up to see how patients were doing. He ran a call on a man who lost his leg in an accident, and Marc would go to his house and spend time with him while he rehabilitated and learned to walk again. He cared about others, and it showed in every part of his life. And in his death, he brought people together again. He created lifelong bonds among firefighters from different states. He made me a part of the Rice family and made them a part of my family. There will still be sad moments and tears shed when we see each other, but we now share something that will never be taken away. Don’t run from the grief. Allow it into your life and learn from it.

BIO:

Jeremy Hurd is an EMS captain and the chaplain for Palm Beach County (FL) Fire Rescue. He volunteers on the CISM team and helps the union and employee assistance program with referrals for firefighters seeking counseling for emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. He volunteers with the Rosecrance Institute’s Florian Program, Florida Firefighter Safety and Health Collaborative, and Trustbridge of PBC.

 

Pennwell