November 2, 2001
New respect for firefighters has drawbacks as
well as benefits
The immediate outpouring of appreciation
for firefighters in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
may be triggering a range of emotions among the families and
co-workers of the firefighters who were lost, says a California
State University, Sacramento psychology professor.
Clinical psychologist Rebecca Cameron has studied the impact
of traumatic stress on firefighters and their partners. She
says the shared public acknowledgement of the loss may be
both a comfort and a hindrance in the grieving process.
"Though families may benefit from the group nature of
their experience there's also the risk of stress contagion,
the feeling of being in a pressure cooker because everyone
around them shares in the ambiguity of the situation, in which
bodies are being retrieved slowly," she says. "The
waiting versus the grieving can magnify in a way that's unhelpful."
There may also be feelings of guilt which are common in grief.
"If a person's spouse dies a hero, it's not just loss
they're dealing with. There may be anger, especially if they
had argued with the person before they died. They may wonder
if they're entitled to their anger," Cameron says. "Guilt
is largely amplified. It's more challenging in light of this
person now being revered."
Any time a firefighter is killed it affects a community. But
it's unprecedented to have 300 killed at once, Cameron notes.
In the aftermath of the terror attacks individual losses may
be overshadowed by the enormity of the situation. "The
person may feel their loss is diminished now that their family
member is one in a sea of names. The personal grief process
may be taking a back seat in the context of everyone else's,"
she says. "There's also the concept that they want to
be seen as the model family member. It's hard to live up to
Cameron notes that people need to grieve at their own pace.
The timing of the community outpouring of support may not
mesh with where the family members are in the grief process.
And eventually that community support will wane. "The
families may be in the spotlight when they're not ready,"
she says. "They may adapt to the spotlight and then have
to readjust when it's no longer there. Having once been a
hero is difficult."
The shocking nature and relentless coverage of the Sept. 11
events make it especially difficult for firefighters and families
to cope. "In general, traumatic stress has more impact
when it's intentionally caused. It's more devastating,"
Cameron says. "In addition, the greater your exposure
to trauma, the greater your risk of traumatic stress."
Accordingly, she worries that many of the firefighters working
at Ground Zero are taking on too much exposure. "Sometimes
what makes the difference is how empowered they feel to make
a difference in the situation. It can be worse when you feel
your training doesn't speak to the problem and you have nothing
to contribute," she says.
"Firefighters are an exceptional group. They are really
oriented toward action. It's very frustrating when they can't
take action in the way they were trained - to save lives and
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