No matter how long you've been in EMS, you've seen more than your share of death. Working in the field, we can become numb to the idea of death. We put up "the wall" to keep death from affecting us, at least emotionally, and we avoid situations in which we may feel the effects of someone else's death. The wall is highest when dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one or coworker. To help us topple this wall, we have funerals, a tradition that allow us to show respect for our coworkers. They also provide an acceptable time and place to show and share our grief.
If you've ever skipped a funeral for another EMS professional, what was the reason for missing it? Did you make excuses about why you couldn't attend. Did you rationalize that since you didn't really know them that well or didn't work with them a lot that your absence wouldn't be noticed? Did you cover the real reason-your discomfort-with a false reason to avoid the topic?
If you did attend the services, did you avoid talking to other people because they were from a neighboring agency and you really didn't know them well? Were you nervous about what to say to the family if you suddenly encountered them?
The main issue: What do we say to someone who has lost a loved one or colleague? Very little is taught or said about going to work-related funerals, but it's a life experience that will happen sometime during your career. Most people avoid going to funerals and visitations. It's natural to be uncomfortable dealing with the emotions of death, especially when you've lost another EMS professional. We don't really know how to act or what to say.
Here are some points for you to consider and remember for the next time you may need to attend an EMS professional's funeral.
It's important to pay your respects at a visitation or funeral. You presence along with others demonstrates to the family the significant contribution that person made to public safety. You're honoring their work and the sacrifices they made to help others.
If it was your direct coworker or close friend, the funeral process is the beginning of saying goodbye. Attending a funeral is a part of the grieving process, and you shouldn't ignore this practice and miss the opportunity to be a part of the end of their life.
Naturally, it can be difficult to witness people who are upset or crying, especially for men. We think it's not acceptable to cry, but it's a human response. So we tend to avoid emotional moments because we want to maintain control. But we must realize that it's OK to have and express emotions. One tradition I've witnessed at several funerals is when the dispatch agency sets off the tones and announces the last alarm for the individual who passed away during the ceremony at the cemetery. It's a powerful and moving experience that often brings a few tears to the eyes of even the most stoic person.
If the family requests an honor guard, volunteer to stand as part of the honor guard. Together, both you and the family are demonstrating the importance of the respect you have for that person. It's also common to place a black band or black tape across the badge when wearing a dress uniform at a funeral to express your mourning.
Take the opportunity to talk with the family members, especially any children. Express to them a good memory of how their loved one helped you or others and thank them for sharing them with you. Let them know you're sorry for their loss. If you're very uncomfortable with the idea of talking with family and friends, being there and demonstrating your respect in a quiet manner can also send a positive message.
As someone who has attended a number of funerals over the years, I appreciate those opportunities to witness the respect toward the deceased for their contributions to their communities and to public safety and to pay my respects to family and friends. Attending these funerals has helped me better remember my friends and to say goodbye. I would urge you to continue the tradition of showing your respect and to take the time to honor your peers by attending their visitations or funerals.