Fire Wife Life - I Have Anticipatory Grief

I have anticipatory grief.

I never knew that it has a name, a label.  

All I knew was that I couldn't stop thinking about, and hysterically crying over, the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, the fatally struck CalFire Engineer, and many previous fallen firefighters.

I never knew that it is not only normal for those who experience it, but that it is also a healthy coping mechanism.  

All I knew was that I first was shocked and curious about how the 19 died, then angry that their fire shelters didn't save them, then devastated for their wives and children, and then exhausted.  

I never knew that this was the classic grief process:  

                      Shock/Denial -> Anger -> Guilt -> Sadness -> Acceptance.

I recently attended an Understanding Grief Workshop.

The speaker, Anne, asked everyone to briefly speak as to why they were there.  I began by saying I wanted to better help my mother with the recent passing of my grandmother, and that I hoped to learn how to help my firefighter release more from the stresses of his job.  He shed a few tears after his first traumatic calls as a probie, but hasn't released any job-related emotion since then.  I told Anne I want to learn how to help him release more so that he won't become a first responder statistic and turn to a substance for release.

Anne totally understood, and related that while "civilians" might think first responders need to continually release, they actually grow a thick skin for the stuff they see out of necessity.  They wouldn't be able to do their job if they were affected by everything they see.  I think we all know this inherently, but my touchy-feely side had wondered.

I then briefly mentioned my grief over the recent wildfire firefighter deaths...and next thing I knew, tears were streaming down my face.  The class was full of grieving people, so this was not out of place to say the least, but I felt surprised, relieved and exposed all at once.

Anne just nodded, warmly and kindly, and said, "Anticipatory grief.  So common for first responder spouses."

From Anne's handout:

"'Anticipatory grieving' is when you know a loss is coming and you can begin to let go of your view of the future.  This occurs in situations where the death or loss is known in advance and you can 'prepare yourself.'  Some authors believe that all of the same stages or steps will be experienced with anticipatory grief.  Other authors believe that only certain stages or steps can be experienced in advance, while others must wait until the actual loss has occurred.  But even if the person does know about an impending loss, they may or may not participate in anticipatory grief.  Each person's journey is unique in this respect."

I felt the numbness of the wife seeing an official Fire vehicle pull up in front of her house.  I felt the overwhelming sadness of her realization that he would never again sleep next to her, his strong arm draped over her.  I felt the incomprehensible loneliness of the pregnant wife realizing she would have to respond to every newborn cry herself.  I felt the little ones' confusion about mommy crumpled in a heap on the floor.  I felt the older ones' disbelief that daddy wouldn't be coming home from shift to make bacon for breakfast ever again.  I felt the nausea arise as the wife replays in her mind what her husband's last few seconds might have been like - how terrifying and possibly painful it might have been for him when he saw the flames approaching, realized he must deploy his last-resort fire shelter, lay as flat as can be, and pray to God.  

One day when Fireman was at the station, my phone rang while my son was looking at pictures on it, and he answered it with a "Hi, Daddy!" and put it on speakerphone.  A man's voice said, "No, this isn't your daddy, this is John with San Diego Fire Rescue...can I talk to your mommy?" 

My heart leapt into my throat and I got that rush of mind-numbing adrenaline that accompanies terror.  In a split second, I reminded myself that if something had happened to Fireman, there would be a man at the door, not on the phone...but I still was not able to fully breathe until I spoke with John and learned he was responding to our email about an HR question.  

When I told Fireman about that the next morning when he got home, I burst into tears and hugged him tight.

Anticipatory grief is my mental preparation for the what-if of Fireman dying in the line of duty.  It's a strange label - I'm certainly not actively anticipating his death, but rather emotionally gearing up for the in-case.  Luckily, I'm able to do my grieving in my few moments alone here and there, and get back to being grateful for the amazing life I have...including the strong arm draped over me 10-15 nights a month.

Kim Plancich writes about dabbling in everything from homebirth to full moon rituals to life as a Fire Wife at Raising Babes, Naturally.  You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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