Very few are lucky enough to go though life without having to face a few difficult situations that etch horrible images in our minds. Most of the bad news we hear is is far away and affects people we don't know. While we feel empathy when we hear of the suffering of others, our exposure to these events is limited. When we are directly involved with a traumatic event, the emotions can be quite different.
When speaking to people who have been through war and other disasters, I am often struck with the detail in which they speak of events that occurred many years before. To them, the events are as clear as if they happened last week. In its extreme, these images are often the cause of post traumatic stress disorder suffered by some of our returning veterans.
We need to be mindful to place even the most difficult images in the proper perspective. Regardless of how we have been affected, these are incidents that we cannot change. When we allow ourselves to identify too closely with things that are long gone, we trap ourselves in the pain of that moment even though it may have been many years ago. We should allow ourselves to acknowledge the memory without becoming attached to it.
I began thinking of this subject a few days ago after speaking to a new paramedic about some of the major incidents I had responded to during my career and how I dealt with the emotions that came along with them. While I still work as an emergency responder, it has been many years since I responded in the role of paramedic. I do not tend to speak about this often but felt it might help him find perspective when he is faced with overwhelming situations.
As I began talking about an incident that occurred nearly 30 years ago, I became aware that my breathing had become shallow and I was experiencing an overall feeling of tightness in my chest as I relived the day. The incident occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1980. I was fresh out of school and to this point had only dealt with crisis on a small scale.
The picture below ran the next day and shows a small portion of an incident that was spread out over 4 blocks. A person had intentionally driven a 1970 Lincoln Continental down a crowded sidewalk in Reno, Nevada at 40 miles an hour, killing 5 and critically injuring 26 others. I am the one being pulled from the ambulance in the background by a panicking police officer after I had ran back for more supplies.
While I have placed this and many other similar incidents in their proper perspective, I am amazed at the detail in which I can still remember the sounds and even smells of that day. I have to choke back a few tears when I think of how some of the victims continue to suffer for the simple fact that they happened to be on the sidewalk that day.
The point of this post is to highlight the point that bad things happen, often to good people. Life sometimes exposes us to things we would rather not see or that we are not equipped to see. Understanding this point allows us a better perspective, hopefully to prevent some of the emotional damage that can occur when we are thrust into horrible situations.
It troubles me that with all the research showing that support systems are critical to the long term mental health of our solders and rescuers, both groups often receive little more than lip service from those charged with the task. The stigma of weakness still plays a big role in the problem, preventing many from seeking what help is available. Being human is not a weakness and we can do a better job in helping those who need it.
If you know someone who you believe is suffering, don't be afraid to talk to them about it. If they are not ready to speak, respect this but let them know you are available. When they are speaking, listen without interrupting. Don't try to make the situation seem less than it is. Let them know that you understand the suffering they are feeling and that it must have been a terrible experience. When a person's feelings are validated, it is much easier to move through those feelings. It may be uncomfortable, but the help you give can be immeasurable.
I could not write this without dedicating it to Dennis Godfrey, who was my partner that day. Sadly, Dennis died in a hang gliding accident the following summer. I have never met a person who loved life and people more than he did. Thank you for all you taught me.
We will never live in a world without suffering but we can help each other move through that suffering for a better tomorrow.