Q: I am so proud of my husband. A couple of years ago, he signed up for our local volunteer fire department and since then he has helped countless families in so many different ways. He never talks about it but I hear great things about him from our neighbors and his buddies on the fire crew.
But I worry about my husband as well. He often won’t eat or sleep properly after he comes home from a call and sometimes I have noticed that he is a little negligent with his chores about the yard. He is clearly bothered by some of what he has seen as a firefighter.
I wish that he would talk to me about it or that I could be of help to him. What do you suggest?
A: It may be post-traumatic stress, a common disturbance for firefighting crews.
In larger communities, special programs are available, designed to help those who are struggling with stress. That support is not always available to firefighters living and working in rural regions.
They do not need to talk about what they have seen because that is often harmful. Recent studies suggest that the best support for post-traumatic stress comes from good, normal interpersonal relationships such as your marriage.
The three dynamics that are most likely to help your husband after he comes home from a call are contact, comfort and information.
He needs to know that he makes a difference in your life and that you enjoy spending time with him. Contact goes a long way to counterbalancing the feeling of helplessness that too often is prevalent when a fire has been difficult to control or when someone was injured or killed.
Comfort is reassurance to your husband that at home he is safe. This is not the time to worry him about family finances or how the children are doing at school. When he gets home from a call, he needs nurturing, support and reassurance. Don’t forget that he has just left what could have been a life-threatening event.
Finally, your husband may need information about the callout. Firefighters often are the last to learn of the cause and final outcome of the fire. Make sure that he has access to that information. Sometimes the outcomes of his work will be discouraging but knowing is better than not knowing.
If your husband is not responding to your support and encouragement or experiencing severe symptoms, talk to your physician or mental health clinic and have him referred to counsellors trained to handle post-traumatic stress.