by Peggy Sweeney
I have been very blessed in my life to be able to be a small part of several human kindness professions. Everyday people who dedicate and risk their lives to protect, serve and care for others:
- law enforcement and correctional officers
- 911 emergency dispatchers
- firefighters (as of 2018, 67% were volunteer)
- pre-hospital caregivers – paramedics, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), and first responders
- medical staff, the list is too numerous to mention
Since 1988, I have had the honor of serving my communities as a funeral director and embalmer, a bereavement educator, an EMT, a volunteer firefighter, and a Hospice volunteer. Something in my DNA led me to choose these challenging, caring professions. These choices brought many rewards for a job well done but can come at a very high price for some. Depression and post-traumatic stress head the list of issues my colleagues and friends have had to cope with.
When attending mortuary school in Nashville (1988-1989), it was the height of the AIDS epidemic. At that time, most hospitals in the Nashville area did not allow their nurses to inform funeral home staff who made the removals (yes, making removals of the deceased was part of our daily routine) that the deceased patient had AIDS. It was a scary time, but we performed our work with care and respect because it was our duty, but more importantly, it was for the families who were grieving
Firefighters no longer just fight fires. Many of them are required to be paramedics or EMTs. For most departments across our country, firefighters respond to emergency medical calls at a much higher rate than they do fire calls. Statistically, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel (EMS) as well as police and correctional officers have a high rate of suicides nationwide due to the recurring traumatic incidents they witness (the death of a child, a mass fatality, or the death of a fellow colleague to name a few). These are the images their mind cannot forget.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to ride along with police officers in big cities and small communities. After signing a department waiver, there were calls where I could choose to accompany an officer when he or she served a warrant, did drug and alcohol testing or responded to domestic violence calls. I have a very dear friend who is a retired detective from Michigan. Ride alongs with him took us into the seedier parts of town. On one occasion, he encouraged me to ask questions of the mother of a suspect. He felt that my being a woman, she would be more receptive to talking to me.
Also, I have been allowed to enter medium and maximum security prisons to understand somewhat what these officers face daily. Once or twice, I talked with the prisoners and, one time was allowed to stand outside the door leading into solitary confinement. The twenty-four continuous bantering, name-calling, screaming of the inmates these officers cope with daily is still etched in my memory.
This is what I want you to know about me and the thousands of men and women in all of the named professions. I loved my work! No, not that someone died; but rather, I was called upon to care for the deceased as well as comfort the living. Sometimes, the best my paramedic partner and I could do was console the family members after our best efforts could not save their loved one.
My brother and sister firefighters work diligently to save life and property. When a family has lost everything in a fire, we try to salvage a personal item(s) that we could give to the family so they would have something to cherish from the destruction caused by flames, smoke, and water.
The opportunities I had to interact with law enforcement officers taught me that they are upholding the laws of their community. We may not agree with a law, but the officer’s duty is to uphold the law even if they, too, do not agree with that law. It is their oath. They take an oath to defend their communities and their country. For the vast number of officers, the last thing they want to do is draw their weapon and shoot.
I say all this to tell you about human kindness. When going on a death call or an emergency call as an EMT or firefighter, we do not question what their race, political affiliation, creed, or sexual orientation is. Our duty is to serve. Period! Our duty is to care for the sick, the dying, and the dead and offer comfort to the families.
Today, with the world coping with the Corona Virus, you see human kindness every day. Before the virus, somewhere along the way, our country lost kindness and caring. My hope is that when we are free to go about our daily lives and interact with others again, we will be more kind, loving, and caring. We will emulate what our medical staff, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and funeral directors do every day.
Let us all practice Human Kindness.
Grief Study, an online program for coping with grief