Death, Compartmentalization, and You

The other day I posted on Twitter, “A dead body before lunch? Yup. #myLEOday.”

I got a response from a follower in South Bend, Indiana (Go, Irish!!) that said, “Sad how you can just shrug it off and then go eat after awhile.” We had a brief back and forth in which we both said it’s just part of the job and at some point it becomes commonplace.

But at what point did that happen? And why?

The first question is difficult to answer. It’s not like remembering the first kiss you ever had. (Yes, I just equated death with your first kiss…I’ve never claimed to be couth). At some point, it just becomes.

The why is easier to figure out. We simply have to. If you can’t deal with the darkness, how can you spread the light? If find yourself overwhelmed in the face of mortal life’s unavoidable destination, perhaps you’re more suited to work at the library or Dairy Queen (not a judgement…I just love a good Blizzard)

Here’s a few ways to deal with death that some of us in LE have used. My hope is to pull back the curtain a bit for you in the private sector to understand us a bit better

1. Humor. AKA Gallows humour. (Yes, humour…I figured we don’t use gallows anymore, so Olde English was appropriate). In the face of morbidity, rank smells, and sadness, we tend to make light of it. It’s a defense mechanism. Fire/EMS is just as guilty. When I was a younger man, I dated a girl around Christmas. She was appalled when we had dinner at the fire house. Why? The Christmas tree was decorated with medical paraphernalia…including toe tags. Morbid…but funny.

2. Faith. I grew up in a Christian household. I go to church now. I love my church and the people in it. I have faith that God is in control and this life isn’t a meaningless journey where we end up being worm food and nothing else exists. Now, I’m sure some of you may think of faith as a crutch. That is your prerogative, I suppose. But my faith sees me through every day…in both my personal and professional life.

3. Compartmentalization. Not my most recommended route, this one. There’s too much of a tendency to bury your feelings. The risk here is that you eventually explode. I guarantee it will be at the most inopportune moment as well. I’ve said time and again in the past how much I appreciate the Wife and the support she lends me. If I need to vent, I can always call her. Venting was also the partial impetus to starting this blog in the first place. The point is that you need someone to share the load. Spouses are the best, but short of that, find someone. Bottling it up will only damage you…and eventually someone you love.

First responders have an inordinate amount of stress foisted upon them. But we buck up and muddle through. Twenty minutes after dealing with death last week, I sat down to eat a big helping of pasta and didn’t think twice about the poor lady that passed hours before. I won’t go into details, but she wasn’t discovered resting peacefully in her bed. She wasn’t dressed for a night on the town. She didn’t smell like roses. All that and I still sat down to eat with co-workers.

The bottom line may sound trite, but it truly is just part of the job.

How do you/would you deal with death?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Snark is encouraged. Being a prat is not.

9 thoughts on “Death, Compartmentalization, and You

  1. I once served as an EMT-P for five years as a volunteer. I had to stop my service in 1998 for two reasons: my "for-pay" job was requiring a lot more travel and I had to miss too many shifts. But the second reason was that I had a lot of trouble distancing myself professionally from the emotional toll when I had to respond to a tragic incident in which death was involved — especially to children. It just hurt too much.

    My helmet is off to you, your friend Happy, and other first responders who are able to maintain professional distance and provide service during such difficult times. Thank you and your brethren for all you do.

  2. I would definitely echo your first two points—humor and faith. Those have been important for me in dealing with death. The other thing that has helped me is community. I have friends I trust who are used to death (firefighters, cops, and other paramedics) and I can talk to them about what happened. Just talking about it makes it easier to deal with. The important thing is to not compartmentalize. I've seen too many friends end up in trouble because they didn't face up and deal with it.

  3. I deal with it by #1 and #2, one of my first calls as a brand new EMT was a difficulty breathing that turned into a full blown code in the back of the ambulance (doing CPR while standing and the ambulance is going 85+ is difficult) the pt didn't make it. It threw me at first, but we all joked about it later. You have to, or you get burned up inside.

    Stay safe out there.

    EMT-B/Entry Level FF

  4. I spent one summer working at a funeral home, and learned there that black humor doesn't disrespect the dead. It respects the living, in a way – the human mind just doesn't handle death very well, so the jokes are a way to express our discomfort and also reassert our status as living, joyful beings. Even if it does mean a lot of poo jokes.

    And funeral homes are really pretty mild, as it goes. Finding a balance between too much sensitivity and too little must be extremely difficult, my hat is off to all emergency workers.

  5. Dear MC,
    Yeah I have to agree with you on your list. We may all do them in a different order or invoke variations on different days but do what works.
    I have found that I don’t want to share too much of the bad stuff with my wife. I talk to other people that were there EMS, FIRE, LEO it doesn’t make a difference. Everyone leaves the scene with a slightly different perspective and perspective is a good thing.
    It occurs to me that these things are never a concern during the heat of battle. But only arrive later on during clean up or slow time. Another coping mechanism I’m sure.
    My brother (the cop) has a way of ameliorating a situation by showing up ‘just to tell me’ that either my kids have been arrested for selling drugs, or my wife for prostitution. Similarly I am always available to him to let him know that his house burned down or the donut shop closed.
    But as far as it goes I’m always up for something to eat.

  6. Humor, faith and understanding that it is part of the job.

    One of the first mortally injured patients I handled as a teen-aged volunteer EMT was a friend of my brother – pedestrian vs. car.

    A more disturbing event as a paid responder was when I went from paramedic to fire company commander. First on the scene of a two-person motorcycle vs. parked car.

    I started working on the most seriously injured – until it was obvious that he had a completely broken neck. The paramedic ambulance crew swooped up the other patient.

    We stayed to provide lights and traffic control. During that hour I realized that this was the longest time I spent with a freshly dead guy. Who was still holding a beer in his right hand.

    That was creepy.

    Did a lot of compartmentalization. My brother and I were firefighters, rarely told our parents what we saw/did. Both married women involved in emergency service/health care.

  7. I have little faith left anymore, spiritual I would say but I'm having a hard time seeing myself as Catholic at this time.

    The way I deal with death is
    a. by appreciating life, that could be the sun shining, a child's innocence, or a good memory.

    b. helping to take some of the burden, being a shoulder for a widow to lean on, a good son, a caring brother, an upstanding citizen, etc.

    Having not gone the first responder route I cannot truly know how looking down the barrel of death might affect me, but I have a pretty good feeling I would react the same, cause hey I'm a funny guy, and like Pete said "I'm always up for something to eat"!

  8. I know for Fire/EMS, that point starts to happen for us in the academy, if not before. I was just having a conversation with a guy on my shift, and we were debating whether we became firemen in part because we can emotionally detach ourselves, or we became firemen and developed the ability to shrug it off later. Either way, we talk about "SOL" and "Crispy Critters" in the academy, and then do clinical rotations and ride alongs and are eased into the culture of seeing the seedy underside of civilized life.
    But I know what your saying, our detachment from suffering does appall non-responders some times. I remember having dinner with my parents once, and they made the mistake of asking me about interesting recent calls. I finished the story casually with a joke, and meanwhile my mom was tearing up.

  9. I would have to echo the others and agree with your list. If anything, the humor is a way to keep your mind at somewhat of a distance from how fragile life can be.

    As a fire guy, I find that little tailboard therapy sessions while taking up on scene help me the most, as I can talk about it with people who just experienced the same thing I did. In turn, each member of the crew is also good about keeping tabs on each others heads for the next couple shifts.

    I also tend to steer clear of telling friends and loved ones about calls (exception being my FF wife). Part of it is because they don't need to hear that stuff, and the other part of it is kind of selfish…this is my work, these are my calls, and my issued to deal with.

    Last week, we had a pt. that coded as we walked in the door. A family friend happened to be at the house and saw the whole thing go down, and appeared visibly shaken. Imagine my surprise when my mother called ME the next morning to make sure I was okay…needless to say she didn't understand why I laughed in response.

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