Haunting the Holidays (first responders)

by Kelly Clark-Bentley

Kelly Clark-Bentley

What do family gatherings, turkey and ham, pies and cookies, shopping, endless commercials of holiday events and cheer, and the ever so popular Hallmark Channel specials all have in common? If you said “the holidays” you would be right. But what happens when your view of the hustle and bustle is not that of a Hallmark movie, but instead a horror film that you play over and over in your mind. What happens when you are faced with the overwhelming feeling of having to put the mask on, smile for the family, spend an overabundance of money and eat an abundance of pumpkin pie, when all you really want to do is lock yourself in your room and try to stop the slide show full of holiday tragedies that are playing in that ever-dreaded, auto-repeat mode.

As first responders, we often have worked holidays either because we were the least senior team member and it was our “rite of passage” to give up the “day off” until we gained some seniority. To others we, at times, chose as senior ranking team members of our departments to allow someone else the day off to be with their families. At any rate, I would venture to say that at some point in your career, you have responded to a call or been involved in something that would be classified as a critical incident.

Even though we respond to incidents every single day – domestic assaults, child abuse, traffic accidents – there is something life-changing about a suicide death on Christmas Eve, or a fatal car accident while a family of four is traveling to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving brunch. Calls that, on any given day are traumatic, can be magnified to overwhelming proportions when they occur on days that are supposed to be filled with giving, happiness, and joy. Even though we see such things many times in a career, there is something inherently heart wrenching when they occur at a time when families are gathering, some for the only time all year long oblivious to the understanding that, in a moment’s notice, this meeting could be the last time they are together.

Most people are not trained or experienced to have this mindset, but for those who live it every day and see the devastation that follows, it can become a crippling burden on our hearts and minds.

I think, for some first responders, there is a compassion/survivor guilt that we feel because we will be home with our families, while at the same time, remembering families who are suffering the loss of life, a home, or anything that makes the holidays a time of mourning and not joy. Many times, we are reminded of critical incidents from years before that come flooding back, making it impossible to be “present” with our own families and creating our own memories. We know that every year, every holiday will be haunted by memories (flashbacks) of where we have been and what we have witnessed.

As you approach this season and you are already feeling the pressure in your chest with the rapid heartbeat with every commercial and every decoration you see being displayed around your neighborhood, I hope that you will take a moment to think of some different approaches to what I have, at times, termed the “haunting days” as opposed to the holidays.

Be patient with yourself. Understand that you are human and it is, often during the same times of your incidents, that you will be triggered with a flood of emotions and memories of that event. Bottom line. it really is “ok to be not ok”. You are having a normal reaction to an extraordinary event.

Be ready to take a “mental time out”. Gather your thoughts if you feel that you are becoming overwhelmed by everything going on around you. There is nothing wrong with stepping away from a crowded room to exercise some slow breathing and relaxation until you feel you can rejoin the festivities.

Do not attempt to ignore the emotions you are having. Instead, acknowledge what you feel and know that you can park that memory in its rightful place as an experience that has changed you. It does not own you. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that it affects you.

Be honest with your feelings to those who are closest to you. There is nothing more confusing to those who love you than having to wonder if they have done something wrong to anger you or make you upset. Be general with your explanation if you feel you need to shelter them from the specific details. Trust me, they know and understand more than you think they do (especially children).

Last, but certainly not least, do not engage in activities that would cause you to lose control. If you drink, ensure that you do not use alcohol to numb your feelings. Alcohol is, by definition, a depressant and should not be used as a tool to “just forget it all”.

If I have said it once, I will say it a thousand times, I hope you will understand that no matter where you are or what you are engaged in, always remember that it really is “ok to not be ok”. A reaction to an abnormal event triggered by a season or anniversary is nothing to be ashamed of or something that you go above and beyond to try to hide. You do not always need to put on your “happy face”. There is not a branded “S” for Superman on your chest. You do not have to carry the burden of making the world around you happy. You have the responsibility to take care of you.

If you can do that, then the other things will hopefully fall into their rightful place and you can reclaim a new mindset with relation to the holidays. In time, the “haunting of the holidays” can hopefully be replaced with new meaning and a renewed joy with maybe even a new tradition to look forward to from this year on.

About the Author: Kelly Clark-Bentley is a veteran of law enforcement, having served eight years in the USAF before being an officer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and retiring out of the Salem (Oregon) Police Department. During her law enforcement career, she has been involved in countless plain-clothed units as well as serving as a Field Training Officer, department instructor for Critical Incident, domestic violence profiling, and trauma team member. Kelly is also certified in Suicide Prevention and Recognition and as a self-defense instructor. She founded Surviving the Shield: PTSD and Public Safety and travels the United States educating departments on the concepts of PTSD and first responder suicide.

February 2021 Journeys Through Grief will premier our first Life Skills newsletter for those who serve: public safety, 911 dispatchers, firefighters/EMS, and department chaplains.  You may sign up on the link below.

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