Coping with the loss of a colleague to suicide: First responder and industry perspectives

By Rima Nasr, Clinical Psychologist at Fortem Australia

Losing someone you care about looks different for everyone. As clinicians, we often witness people in their journey of loss and traumatic experiences.  However, we are not always the experts. You as the first responder community are, regrettably, and too often, the experts on what it feels like to live with the loss of a colleague to suicide.  

 

After Fortem received requests from first responders about recent suicides in service, I wondered how we might further contribute to the conversation around this difficult and pain-filled topic. So, I asked people in the first responder community who have lost a colleague or family member to suicide about their experiences. Here are their voices and parts of their stories shared in the hope that you know you are not alone.  

 

There is no end to grief; it is not linear, there is no finish line, no destination to be reached. There is no timeframe. It is like a mountain range undulating and unfolding before you as you navigate a path along it. The same is true of healing and with healing comes hope, self-discovery and clarity.”

Excerpt from Tara J Lal’s book talking about her experience of grief following the suicide of her brother.

About the contributors

Tara J Lal is a firefighter, author, and speaker. She lost her brother to suicide when she was 17. She talks about joining Fire and Rescue NSW as a firefighter, and later becoming a volunteer peer support officer seeing first-hand the impacts that losing a fellow firefighter and friend to suicide has had on so many of her colleagues. She has also been completing research which aims to understand and explore firefighters’ experiences of exposure to suicide; both in their personal and professional lives. 

 

Shayne Connell, family of emergency service personnel and CEO at LivingWorks Australia, lost his uncle to suicide in 2018. His uncle was a paramedic with NSW Ambulance. He also comes from a family of police, paramedics, and fire fighters. Shayne shares his experiences both as a family member and as an educator of suicide prevention programs. LivingWorks is currently providing training to various law enforcement and emergency service agencies across Australia. 
 

Deidentified former Police Officer shares her experiences as a NSW Police Officer, having known colleagues who have died by suicide both whilst in the job, and since leaving the service. She talks about what it is like to be part of a first responder community dealing with the aftermath of loss. 

Explore the lived experience of each contributor by clicking on the questions below.


A firefighter’s perspective by Tara J Lal

Many firefighters spoke to me about the maelstrom of emotions they experienced in the wake of the loss of a colleague to suicide. They spoke of both trauma and grief and a deep questioning and struggle with the question ‘Why?’. Many firefighters spoke of deep shock and an associated threat to their own and their family’s sense of safety. They spoke of shame and guilt associated with whether they could have done something to prevent the death and a profound sense of failure in their role as a protector, and an ensuing confrontation with their own sense of worth and identity.

 

A family member’s experience by Shayne Connell

I lost my uncle to suicide in 2018, he was a paramedic with NSW Ambulance and very much a father figure to me (I was raised by a single Mum — so spent a lot of time with him growing up). It’s the most distressing experience I’ve ever had, and the loss is so sudden and so final. I watched as his paramedic colleagues questioned themselves and ruminated over past conversations, signs, arguments, difficult jobs and overall relationships. 

It seemed that everyone could point to a reason that his loss was in some way their “fault” or due to something they had missed. 

This was exacerbated by the fact that he died at work, and immediately following a meeting with his management. Several people who knew him left the service over the next 6 months. And as I travel across the state and interstate to deliver ASIST training, many people in emergency services who I speak with know of his story. It seems that a suicide of a first responder is felt across the emergency service community. 

 

A former Police Officer’s experience, Anonymous

I have been to suicides, and I know what it is like, let alone for it to be one of your own – it is harder. The question of “what could we have done differently?”, “why?”. It is hard to work out the “why”. There is so much confusion. I want them alive and I couldn’t help. A lot of people hide it so well and sometimes it is hard to see. I worked with a police officer two years ago. He had a huge sense of humour and I never thought that anything was wrong. He was happy and always joking. I was in shock. I didn’t see it coming. How did it get to this stage? 

It hits close to home. I was nearly there. I feel guilty that I was able to get myself out and he didn’t.



A firefighter’s perspective by Tara J Lal

Suicide is a different type of trauma, that cannot be processed using the usual skills that first responders have. It confronts people with a struggle with endless unanswered questions inherent in every death by suicide, eliciting uncertainty that is uncomfortable and distressing.

The unknowns of suicide disable the ability to make sense of it, such that the way that we make meaning from our experiences in the world is deeply challenged. It is very difficult for firefighters to effectively use their usual barriers that enable them to remain emotionally detached from the potentially traumatic events they attend as emergency service workers. This challenges the ability to compartmentalise the event or ‘file’ the memory away, bringing up complex and intense emotions.

Suicide violates our global meaning and belief systems threatening our sense of safety, predictability, and agency. At a fundamental level, it changes our way of being in the world.

Many colleagues are left feeling as if the ground on which they stand is no longer stable and as if the internal compass which we use to navigate our life journey is somehow disorientated.

 

A family member’s experience by Shayne Connell

The good: community coming together to support each other. The difficult: how management handles the postvention response, how they talk about it (if at all), and [whether] the supports provided by the service are seen as ‘ticking the box’ of management, or genuine support and service for those left behind.                                            

 

A former Police Officer’s experience, Anonymous

That [the loss] is one of our own. When it occurs on Police premises or in the office, it is just harder. Finding your mate at work … makes it hard to go back there and be reminded of it all the time. If I know them, I think about the family they have left behind. I wonder about procedures and all the details that I never got. Some colleagues rally together to help each other.

 

 

A firefighter’s perspective by Tara J Lal

This is an evolving space. Some ideas include having a co-ordinated and timely response, including crisis support for those who may be impacted. Ensuring that care and support continues throughout the first one to two years after a death. In addition, committing to developing post suicide support services,  resources and programs that are not only informed by those with lived experience but co-produced and designed by them. Offering safe spaces for those impacted to explore very difficult and confronting emotions and what the death means to them.  Good support looks different for everyone. So, having different options for support. Involving culturally and organisationally informed mental health professionals with experience in post suicide support and trained first responders with lived experience.

Active outreach as we cannot rely on people to reach out for support when they are at their most vulnerable.  Support to allow for the questioning that suicide inevitably brings up, including how suicide can or may become an option. Support to ask and answer “What does this mean for me?”.

The emerging research tells us that it is important for support to continue throughout the first year after the death, and acknowledge anniversaries and safe, compassionate, respectful memorialisation.

In the long term, encouraging safe conversation around suicide to reduce and address barriers to help seeking and reduce stigma.

Facilitated discussion can encourage all first responders to make a suicide safety plan, such that having a suicide safety plan is normalised and aligns with a general wellbeing plan. Teaching first responders the skills to emotionally process and self-reflect in the wake of challenging experiences such as the suicide death of a colleague.


A family member’s experience by Shayne Connell

Opportunities to discuss the impact of suicide with colleagues and others who know the culture and the issues. For example, we run ASIST workshops on suicide intervention for first responders as a group, but we have found that these training workshops need to be run separately for Police officers, who have a different protocol and cultural response to suicide both within the ranks and in operational policing. It can be difficult for these officers to open up and speak freely with others who aren’t police. 

Also, in response to a colleagues suicide, I believe it is important for people to have as much information as possible. 

There can be a lot of speculation and rumour, about home life, work life or other things that have happened, and this is often fuelled by the search for answers and meaning, but can be unhelpful. Clear and supportive communication from management, support services, and others (particularly peers) can help. 

 

A former Police Officer’s experience, Anonymous

Being advised that their feelings are normal. There is always someone to help. Lean on other colleagues and friends. Check on your mate. Find ways to get past the thoughts and reminders and to know that grief is a process. In the medium term, they need to know where to get help, have regular check ins as a group especially if everyone has gone through the same thing. 

The more we share resources and encourage help seeking, the more likely hope can be clung to and people will speak up and break down that stigma.

If I got help earlier in my career I would still be in. Throwing out the “pump up princess and you’ll be right” attitude and changing it to “it is ok to reach out for help. It is normal and it should be expected because we are having a normal reaction to abnormal events”.

 

A firefighter’s perspective by Tara J Lal

The facilitation of safe spaces to open up conversations around suicide. To move beyond the initial crisis response and encourage others to talk about the person that died, sharing happy memories, but also acknowledging the painful emotions it brings up. Having access to formal or informal support if and when needed, ensuring those providing support are adequately trained and experienced in suicide postvention as well as organisational and cultural context. Also ensuring support reaches the families of the first responder who has died and is ongoing. We must ensure that the way the death is communicated is compassionate, respectful and safe, seeking advice from organisations such as StandBy Support after Suicide. It is also important to openly acknowledge and remember the first anniversary of the death and what it may bring up for people.

It is helpful, once people are healed enough, to offer suicide prevention skills training where appropriate. 

We need to support people to transition from trying to make sense of the death to making meaning from it. 

Feeling empowered by learning new skills to support others from their experiences is one way that facilitates meaning making.

 

A family member’s experience by Shayne Connell

A source of comfort for the family has been that on the anniversary of his death the family and colleagues have received calls and check ins from the CEO and wellbeing people. It is comforting to know that his loss has meaning, and that phone call can mean the world to a family member (or colleague, ex-shift partner) grieving. 

 

A former Police Officer’s experience, Anonymous

Talking with other friends especially if they knew them. 

Normalising whatever reaction we are having to the loss. 

Having support from commands. Not letting things build up. 


A firefighter’s perspective by Tara J Lal

That you don’t have to be a close friend for the suicide of a colleague to have a profound impact on you. Suicide is a traumatic death that can often trigger many old or complex memories for us that don’t seem to ‘make sense’. Finding a safe space to talk through what the death means for you can be incredibly helpful for us to process what it means for us.

For around 20% of suicides there are no warning signs. People are very good at masking their darkest emotions. I would encourage people to have self-compassion in understanding that we can’t save everyone. We only know what we know and many mental health professionals have lost patients to suicide. It is normal to struggle with the loss of a colleague to suicide and it brings up complex emotions. Notice the stigma we put on ourselves about who we think we should be. Many firefighters feel they should be able to cope on their own, that somehow asking for support challenges their perceptions of themselves as strong rescuers. I would ask all first responders to question what they would say to their best mate if they (the best mate) were struggling and then say those words to themselves. 

In our vulnerability is where we find our strength. When we open up about our struggles we give others permission to do the same. 

It is a gift, not a weakness. Use your experiences to learn more about suicide, to understand better and use that knowledge to effect change in yourself and in your relationships. It is the quality of our relationships that keeps us healthy and safe. Use the experiences to build closer more authentic relationships with yourself and with others.

 

 

A family member’s experience by Shayne Connell

I was surprised by how helpful it was to have all of the information, down to very specific details, about his suicide. Colleagues and family members wanted to know everything about what had happened, how, where, when, who he spoke with, what was going to happen next.

It was as though having these detailed answers and information filled the void and vacuum of so many questions that will always remain unanswered.

A former Police Officer’s experience, Anonymous

We need to decrease that stigma so people want to get help and speak up to someone, anyone and you will not get punished for getting help.

 

Let’s not make death by suicide the elephant in the room. There are no right or wrong responses to loss. People can hide their struggle really well. There are not always obvious warning signs. Regardless, the pain and healing after the loss of a colleague or loved one to suicide is real. Having information helps, and knowing where to go for support can be useful, wherever you are at, and however long it has been since your loss. 

If you or anyone you know needs help, please seek support. Help is available. 


If you need help for crisis support, in the event of an emergency — please phone 000.


If you, or someone you know, needs immediate help, please contact one of the following crisis lines:
Beyond Blue
provides one-on-one support with trained mental health professionals at any time of the day or night: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline
provides crisis support and suicide prevention services: 13 11 14

Find out about Fortem’s clinical services by clicking here or calling 1300 33 95 94.


For information on support after suicide, see StandBy
For information on suicide intervention training, see LivingWorks