Coping With Grief and Tragedy

Mark, an EMS blogger friend over at Medic999 wrote an outstanding piece last month on his struggles coping with a recent call. I have great admiration for writers who are willing to put themselves out there in very real ways. Mark and I are similar people. We’re both in our thirties with wives and children. And we both tend to have a positive outlook on our careers.

We also have the similar experience of feeling moments of grief at very random times. I know exactly what Mark is talking about when he explains the experience of driving along in his car and tearing up and not understanding why.

When I was a young twenty-something paramedic, I had an older paramedic tell me about a similar thing happening to him. He would just be doing something completely inconsequential and he’d have these moments of grief just wash over him. His doctor even discussed putting him on a SSRI medication. (He declined.)

When he told me about it I remember thinking he was a bit whacked. I just couldn’t relate. Until I turned 34 or 35 … and it started happening to me. I’d be playing with my kids, listening to a song or driving my car and suddenly I’d just feel overwhelmingly sad.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that feelings build up inside of you and need to be released. I don’t think there is any overstocked warehouse of grief or sadness somewhere within me and some internal supply manager is yelling, ‘We need to offload some of this stored up grief in here!” I don’t buy it. I do believe that we develop triggers to certain feelings. We may or may not be aware of them. It makes sense to me that when we work this close to human tragedy and grief we develop neuro-associative triggers and when we experience those same stimuli later on we produce similar feelings.

I wasn’t sure how to cope with this at first. I’ve given it a lot of thought over the past few years. This how I have chosen to frame the experience. If your dealing with something similar, you may find this helpful.

Make Peace With The Grief

I’ve made peace with the idea that I’m not going to feel great all the time. Nor do I want to. The experiences of our life span the spectrum of joy and sadness and so should our internal experience of them. That’s part of being authentic about the world around us. It’s part of being human. I don’t think we serve ourselves by blocking out feelings that we are clearly supposed to feel.

When I am experiencing something joyful I feel joy and when I experience something tragic I feel grief and I don’t try to suppress those feelings. If I started feeling sad during joyful, happy times or happy during tragic times I would be concerned. I’ve stopped trying to limit or edit my internal feelings. Instead I make peace with what I’m feeling and then I experience it.

A big part of coping with this new experience for me has been letting go of trying to control it and just deciding to feel it. I find that this has been helpful in identifying what has triggered the initial feeling. When I let go of, “I’m not supposed to feel this right now.” and just give myself the OK to be really sad it often occurs to me exactly what triggered the feeling and it makes more sense. Sometimes I never get that recognition and I’m OK with that too. I’ve seen a lot of sad stuff in my lifetime. I can give myself permission to feel sad every so often.

(Side Note: I am empathetic with my patients, but I am never emotional while I’m in a patient care or emergency situation. Being outwardly emotional on scene can be devastating to scene control and effectiveness.)

Appreciate Your Life

One of the most empowering things about being a part of sad and tragic circumstances is the great appreciation it gives you for what you have. Most people don’t have these constant reminders in their lives of how precious our lives and our relationships really are.

I see my experiences with tragedy as a two sided coin. On one side is the sadness that comes from being so close to those events and feeling empathy for those involved. On the other side of the coin is the tremendous gratitude and appreciation I feel for all I have and all I am able to do.

Being closer to death allows us to be closer to life.

Mark talks about passing by a house every day on his morning commute and recalling a terrible tragedy that took place there. I also have these places of meaning in my city. Places where images of awful things still haunt me. I use those places as reminders of how fortunate and privileged I am to live this life.

In some ways I feel that we give more meaning to the deaths of others when we use them to gain a greater appreciation for all that we have. If Mark passes by that house on the way home and every day he is reminded to hug his children and tell them how special they are, then he has gained a priceless gift.

I can’t change the fact that sad and unfair things happen in the world, but I can accept my role in these events as a gift. If the experience can change me for the better, I chose to accept the gift … even if it comes at a price.


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  1. I wrote a post close to this yesterday and I don’t really know why I did. I just sat down to write and it came out. Hmmm, cosmic sadness rays? Phase of the moon? I dunno.

    Is it because of our collective ages? I don’t remember feeling that way very much when I was in the young 20s

  2. Thanks Steve,
    Great post, some of the things you mention I try and do anyway, however, the one thing I would love to change is to try and remember how lucky I am and how special my loved ones are without having to go to the bad jobs to remind me..that would be the real bonus for me. Its so easy to just fall back into normality and the usual petty arguments etc. Its just a shame that its the next big job that comes along that reminds you how lucky you are!

  3. Hi Steve! Thank you for the post. I feel the same way with the only difference that I cannot cope with the haunting images from the past. In my nightmates I still see some nasty stuff from classes in Forensic Medicine, the first death I witnessed at the hospital and the most chilling of all – the death of my father.I keep asking myself whether this is the end and there is nothing afterwards. I know that my question sounds silly..but.. Did you see something supernatural? Something confirming that there is afterlife?

  4. Awesome post. I’ve had similar experiences of random sadness as well. I think being 17 has made things a bit more difficult in terms of coping with bad calls. I’m hoping these feelings don’t end up pushing me away from health care.


  1. […] here to read the original post if you missed it, then here for Steves […]

  2. […] Spot we had a bunch of good stuff go down. Inspired by Mark over at Medic999, I wrote a piece about coping with tragedy in EMS. I also challenged you to stop whining and ask your self the question, “Who’s going to […]

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