Helping First Responders Deal with Grief

When tragedy strikes, police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and crisis counselors are usually the first people on the scene. From defusing high-risk situations to assisting the injured and removing the deceased, first responders see a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. As a partner, family member, friend or co-worker of a first responder, here are some tips to help you address the feelings he or she may be experiencing.

Understanding What First Responders Do

To understand the grief many first responders experience, it is important to understand the common tasks of first responders. The basic structure for any first responder position is:

  • Preparation
  • Response
  • Recovery

Preparation includes having all contacts in order, having access to adequate supplies and making sure a backup plan is in place for important utilities, such as electricity and water.

Response includes procedures for impact assessments, repairs, and implementation of alternate communications solutions. There are three levels of criticality that are frequently used:

  • Mission Critical: Indicates a catastrophic breakdown in response ability which could result in a major loss of life, property, and system trust breakdown.
  • Important: Indicates a severe decrease in the ability to respond to emergency needs. There could be excessive loss of life or property associated with this type of outage.
  • Minor: Indicates that full response is possible with modifications to the response systems.

In addition to making sure any injured people are cared for and that high-risk situations have been defused, first responders may also be responsible to notify families that a loved one has been injured or killed.

Coping With Grief

From minor stresses to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), first responders may have a wide range of reactions to any given situation. As a loved one, there are some things you can do to help cope with even the most tragic situation.

  • Encourage your loved one to share what he or she is upset about.
  • If he or she does not want to talk, let them know the option is available.
  • Encourage your loved one to seek individual or group counseling. There are many groups dedicated to grief and PTSD.
  • Once you have made yourself available, give your loved one some space – he or she may not be ready to talk to you.
  • Never tell a loved one to “get over it.” This downplays the tragedy he or she experienced and can undermine his or her confidence.
  • Take care of yourself first. It is difficult to help someone if you are having trouble dealing with the situation as well. Consider talking to a family member, friend or counselor.

Above all else, remember that recovering from the shock and sadness of a tragedy can take time. Be patient with your loved one.


United States Department of Veterans Affairs:

Department of Homeland Security:

Mental Health America:

National Alliance on Mental Illness:

National Institute of Mental Health:

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