I am sure you all have seen footage and followed the story of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in West London over the past week. That story, along with others, have a way of breaking down the walls we as wives and husbands of firefighters develop over time. Those walls really protect us from thinking about what our loved ones are doing while they are at “work.” For me I can physically feel the moment they come crashing down. It is like a hard hiccup. One that shoots a sharp pain through the deepest part of your chest, takes your breath away and makes you stop in your tracks. It is incredibly important for the families of first responders to have a place to go in those moments of doubt and fear for reassurance that others are going through the same things they are. The nights of no sleep, like the one I had the other night, where my mind after 15 years of training said “Oh no girl, we are goin to think on this TONIGHT!”
I can remember reading an article my husband shared with me over 8 years ago. The first sentence went like this…”The divorce rate for firefighters is three times that of the general population, which is the highest rate in the nation, second only to that of the military. A functioning, long-term marriage in this profession is uncommon; a happy, thriving, intimate one is rare.”¹ Joe and I are blessed to have all of the above, but that is not to say it has been easy. I am so thankful that whatever it was we were going through at that time, we were able to read something that we could relate to.
One thing I have learned with lots of time and practice is that there’s a way to triage my man when he walks in the door after a 24 hour shift. Like asking, “How was your night, babe?” it’s always a good place to start. Knowing when to push for details is a big one. My spouse, like many others I’m sure, can be fiercely private and quiet. As a wife it can be hard to discern when to push for information. In the beginning of our relationship I had a hard time knowing when to push and when not to. At that time I was only trying to understand what his shift had been like and so I felt that I needed to dig deep to get it out of him. Not the most sensitive way to go about things. Unfortunately that worked against me as it reminded him of randos that liked to ask him for the dirty details of his job. For example, when my husband gave a presentation to our daughter’s fourth grade class on seat belt safety, as soon as the discussion was opened up for questions a young boy with eyes that were huge with fascination asked bluntly “Have you ever seen a dead person before?” That is an understandable question from a 10 year old’s perspective, but when adults ask questions similar to that it feels as though they are trying to satisfy some weird fascination they have with gory details. Listen, sometimes it is crucial to know what your spouse experienced on their shift. You need to know what they just saw with their eyes that you pray you’ll never ever see with yours. Not only to be able to be there for them in whatever way they need, but to prepare yourself and everyone else in the house for the possible mood swings, the short temper or the long ass nap they might require. You learn to not nag about the trash on some days. And you learn the language of the eyes.
I can tell you that there can be hard years (yes I said years) that are a result of the job. Perhaps you’ve heard the “It comes in three’s” wive’s tail, or that there are cycles and waves in life and (my favorite) “hospital beds will be full from the full moon tonight” theory. Y’all may not believe in any of that, but here’s the thing-it’s true. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There can be relative peace for a few months, even years, then BAM! Back to back shifts of war like trauma calls. Those are the times when you need to (first and foremost) have a system in place. You see, the truth of the matter is, we are the emotional nurses of the house. First part of my system is to know to be patient, to give some space and to simply be present. Second is to let the kids know to be a little more quiet, and be a bit more respectful. This is in the hopes of preventing normal day to day arguments siblings have that can make a household loud and aggressive be more quiet and serene. We have to try to anticipate the triggers and remove them. I hate to say that, but it is the reality. How can one go through what they’ve gone through at work and not bring it home in some negative way? I don’t think they can. And I don’t blame them. This isn’t a free pass to be a jerk, but it is an awareness of the tidal wave of emotions that they could be experiencing. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but wrap a good meal with a cold beer band-aide on that thing for the next few days, but that’s just what you do.
For us, we can usually work through these times together as a team. However, during those extended periods of (insert your label or term here) it might be necessary to seek outside help such as, friends, family, a Minister, Priest or a Therapist. Do it. Don’t let shame or embarrassment prevent you from asking for the help you, your spouse or your relationship may need. Don’t be afraid to demand it as well. I know that the word “demand” is strong, but you are dealing with the strongest of the strong when it comes to personalities in having a firefighter for a spouse. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.
PS~ Please bare with me as I get in to the groove of writing again. For the time being, my 5th grader is really a great little Editor. The freshman daughter tried, but truth is, she’s kinda mean about it.
¹“What Every Firefighter’s Spouse Should Know – Fire Engineering.” 1 Dec. 2009, http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-162/issue-12/departments/fire-commentary/what-every-firefighter.html. Accessed 22 Jun. 2017.