By Bruce Lacillade
April 13, 2015, Beamsville, Ont. - The tones go off and you respond to yet another critical incident, another senseless tragedy. You do your best but you can’t fix everything. Yet the tones keep going off and you keep responding.
As first responders you deal with traumatic events fairly regularly so emotional struggles are normal and to be expected. From this, one can develop what is called cumulative stress. This is the most frequent form of stress and can cause great difficulty if the warning signs are not recognized, or if they are ignored. These warning signs can include headaches, fatigue, indigestion, back pain, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, apathy and irritability. Yes you are a trained professional but you are also human.
I believe that many of the issues with post-traumatic stress revolve around finding meaning – in other words, how to make sense of the world and one’s self after experiencing trauma. Research shows that our basic morals, values and beliefs are negatively impacted by traumatic events. This, in turn, can create moral conflict. In Canada we have grown up with, and try to live, according to reliable standards of right and wrong, of what is noble and base, just and unjust. These principles and values tend to be quite stable and traditional morals such as these are not dead. We believe in right and wrong and in justice and mercy but as a first responder there seems to be no shortage of bad stuff.
The mind longs for answers and we find ourselves searching for inner truth and reflecting on life in general. Pythagoras designated a latent force in man/women by the word psyche; soul. This is the idea that there is something within us that corresponds to the highest principle of the universe. Sadly this part of the human person is too often ignored in today’s society.
My experience with veterans indicates that those who have suffered a loss of meaning in their lives are the ones likely to seek help from clergy or veterans affairs mental-health professionals. Unfortunately many civilian mental-health professionals treat only the clinical aspects while missing the psyche. From my training and understanding the existential search that most veterans (and first responders) are pursuing is central to the spiritual care chaplains can provide. Believe it or not chaplains are trained to be a nonjudgmental presence. A good chaplain won’t preach to you but will walk along beside you to help you sort things out.
People can and do experience positive transformations in their lives after trauma, and for many these may take on a spiritual component or understanding. This is post-traumatic growth and happens concurrently with the struggles and difficulties that may occur when you respond to and process traumatic events. Remember the saying whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?
Life still has meaning; it’s just not always about you. In fact the purpose of your life is actually far greater than your peace of mind, your happiness or your personal fulfillment. You are here for a reason and you are valued.
Bruce Lacillade is retired from the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario, where he spent 10 years on the floor as a firefighter and the next 15 years as an inspector in fire prevention. He’s also a U.S. Navy veteran and the chaplain for the American Legion in Ontario and the United Council of Veterans (Hamilton and area). Bruce helps first responders, military personnel, veterans, and their families deal with what he calls moral injuries, or internal conflicts. Contact Bruce at firstname.lastname@example.org