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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 the status."

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 prevent losses."

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