Editor’s note: In this article, part of a two-article series on firefighter suicide, Lt. Frank Fennell shares a story he initially penned in 1995, one year after losing a firefighter colleague to suicide. The other part of this series looks at behavioral health programs for fire departments, including several innovative programs implemented in the Phoenix suburbs, that can help departments promote emotional and mental health. Note: If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 800-273-TALK(8255).
Additional Coverage: NFFF Introduces New Model for First Responder Behavioral Healthcare.
I was reading the paper the other day, or maybe listening to the radio–being bombarded with the latest sale–when I realized that July 4 was just around the corner. The “highlight” of the summer had crept up on me quickly and quietly. Perhaps it was my new assignment that had occupied my mind. Or it might have been the end-of-school excitement for the kids. Or ongoing home improvement projects. Maybe my subconscious just repressed the fact that it was that time of year. The past 12 months are now a blurred jumble of unhappy images, mixed emotions and conversations left unfinished–because they all ended with questions that I couldn’t answer.
At the beginning of my shift on July 4, 1994, I learned that one of our firefighters from my shift–and my closest brother in arms–had just left the station. Within moments, we learned he had died by suicide. Throughout this day of heartbreaking anguish, my mind was in overdrive, trying to understand, to cope, to console, to accept. This was a terribly full, terribly long day pervaded by shock, disbelief and questions. Horror, denial, questions. Anger, hurt and more questions. Compassion, sympathy and still more questions.
After the furor had subsided, the theories presented and the possibilities discussed, the key question still remained: Why? Why would anyone kill themself? And not just “anyone,” not just another run number in the county’s daily list of 9-1-1 statistics. This was one of our own, one of us.
From the beginning of our existence on earth, the main objective of human beings has been to survive; humans do this fairly well by living in a manner–for the most part–that avoids anything that could lead to death. We, however, are part of the genus known as “firefighters”; we go out of our way to get into harm’s way to save someone else’s life. As others run away from danger, we run toward it.
Why, then, would someone who many times had unselfishly and heroically put himself in harm’s way, had saved lives, had eased the pain and suffering of others–WHY would this person drive to the highest point of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and jump to his death? Without regard for his wife and two sons, his parents or his siblings–in what was widely known as a tightknit family. Without a word to any of these people, let alone his close friends, neighbors or fellow firefighters. Not even his closest brother-in-arms.
Searching for Answers
In the month following his death, I was asked those questions 100 times by as many people. People who were his fishing buddies, people he knew in school, people he had helped with one home construction project or another, people he went to sporting events with. Firefighters–career and volunteer–who worked alongside him, who drew strength from his strength, who learned from his skill and resourcefulness or simply enjoyed his company. Family members, who thought they knew this person with whom they had lived their entire lives, now faced a sudden void–an emptiness caused from a bizarre and inexplicable occurrence.
It has been a year since the death of Firefighter III Timothy Hines. Do we now have the answers to all of the questions? Absolutely not. There are, however, fragments from which ideas are formed. As the local newspaper printed, Timmy faced personal problems at home. As Bryan Flynn of the Center for Mental Health Services told people at the debriefing session, suicide is a symptom of an illness, not of the body, but of the mind. As illogical and misguided as it may seem, suicide is the final statement, the last word.
We all have different ways of trying to explain suicide. Co-workers and officers compared Timmy–an intelligent and logical person–to the candle whose flame shines twice as bright, but burns out twice as quick. Members of his family, who draw strength from their close ties with each other as well as from the church, say that, “the untimely death of anyone is Satan’s victory in one battle, but our comfort comes from knowing that God ultimately wins the war.”
All of this makes up portions of the puzzle that I and many others have been trying to solve. Unfortunately, the key pieces aren’t around anymore. Timmy, the ultimate mischief maker, took those pieces with him. And even if he were here to supply us with those answers, to tell us “why,” we probably wouldn’t believe it.
Timmy Hines was the last–and I mean the very last–person in the world that we would’ve ever guessed could carry out this horrible method of self-destruction. But this seems to be the case in so many accounts of suicide that we read about, or experience.
Anger and/or guilt surrounding a suicide are normal; it’s tempting to look for an action or event that “caused” the person to take their own life, to blame someone. But the true object of our anger–the person with the answer to our questions, who has caused so much pain and sorrow–isn’t here to tell us “why.” Our anger, without the benefit of having all the facts, is then directed at the next available target, the person who “made him do it.” This is not only unfair, it resolves nothing; rather, it leads to a situation that compounds itself with more sorrow, more anger.
That this act was so out of character for Tim amplified our feelings of anger and guilt, and our desire to blame someone. Still, to carry this bitterness through your life, to allow it to cloud your being, is a disservice to yourself and those around you.
Forgive, Don’t Forget
I learned how hard it is to get over your anger when you’re unable to lash out at the subject of that anger. You should try to discuss your feelings with someone who cares and who will listen. Talk. Yell. Get mad. But eventually, you must reset your sights, and move on. Direct your emotions to doing something positive.
The same is true for guilt. Tim’s sister puts it this way: “All who were close to Timmy are blaming themselves for not having somehow done more–for not reading the signs better, or for not being faster, or not being a better witness, or for not being really sure he knew we were there for him. There are no satisfactory answers for this either. I believe each one of us that feels guilty in this situation must accept that guilt and ask God to forgive us. Then we must forgive ourselves.”
OK, forgive. But what about forget? Forget Timmy Hines? Never! Timmy was, to say the least, a unique individual. To forget any part of him would not be getting the whole picture, a complex picture that must be viewed in its entirety to be appreciated. There is a lot to remember: his knowledge and abilities, his humor and antics, his compassion and love. Looking back on these and other positive traits is to keep the memory of a good friend alive.
And when we do look back, we must realize that it’s just a glance into the past; it can’t become a fixed stare. Every person I have ever spoken to about “death”–Timmy included–realizes that “Life goes on.” Pay attention to the past. Take note of the lessons it offers. Then take what you have learned and use the knowledge as a positive resource, a valuable tool with which to encounter future situations.
So what did the future hold for those who were close to Timmy? For his immediate family, it was a different home in a different place where they could try to start over. To build a new life together, develop closer bonds with each other, to find that “new normal.”
For his parents and siblings it meant maintaining a close-knit family with the usual Sunday gatherings in Galesville–not denying the pain or sorrow or sadness, but trying not to let the past keep them from embracing the future. For some co-workers, it meant transfers, new assignments, new jobs. It has meant different things to different people, but the bottom line is we learn to live with the loss, and move on.
And what does this mean to me? What have I tried to accomplish with this article to help anyone understand the events of a year ago? I felt compelled to put onto paper some of the thoughts, feelings and lessons I have learned as a result of the experience I have had. Although it wasn’t the most cherished episode in my life, in a way it was the most meaningful.
I am grateful for the support and resources from the chief and the rest of our department for allowing me to help lay a close friend to rest with dignity. And I thank my wife, Sue, who steadfastly stood by my side during the entire ordeal, including the tragic death of one of our own family members one week after Timmy’s.
I will also reaffirm what I said at Tim’s memorial service: that though our chosen profession has its pitfalls, the camaraderie we develop with those we work with, in whose hands we place our lives, cannot be matched by ordinary citizens with ordinary jobs. This is a calling in which the brothers and sisters you serve with become a second family. These are people we should look out for; people we should be there for.
The system in which we function isn’t so bureaucratic and faceless that it doesn’t recognize this. It provides resources to facilitate members of this “family” and urges its members to assist each other. For most of us, this is instinctive by the very nature of our vocation. The hands of help are there at many levels. But you have to reach out, just a little, to grab one.
As for Timmy … well, he’s like the beloved character from the movie he knew almost by heart, from which he could recite entire scenes word for word. Like that character, Timmy was intelligent, he had common sense and he had determination. And he didn’t have to go all the way to Oz to get the answers. He had them all along. He just needed a little help from his friends to realize it.
Goodbye, Scarecrow. We’ll miss you most of all.
- Joint Statement from the IAFC, NFFF and NVFC on Suicide in the Fire Service
- National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Resources for Firefighter Mental Health