It goes without saying that working as a 911 dispatcher has affected several areas of my life.  I expected the odd work and sleep hours, the missed holidays with family and the mental exhaustion.   I did not expect to become so emotionally numb to tragedy that I cannot grieve the loss of my own father.   Recently, my mother and I started attending a grief support group.  My father passed away in November of 2012 from stage four brain cancer.   I signed up for the group with the intention of supporting my mother and hoping to figure out why I was having such a difficult time allowing myself to grieve the death of my father.   I can honestly feel myself purposely avoiding thinking about it at all.   I had some suspicion that my job may have something to do with my grieving process, but I was amazed at how much it has truly affected my ability (or lack thereof) to grieve.  While I am not a big fan of group therapy, it has been a good experience.  Grieving, I have learned, is an individual and deeply personal experience.  Grieving the loss of a father is very different from grieving the loss of a spouse.  My mother and I are grieving very differently.  My parents had been married for fifty years.  I cannot imagine how difficult this journey is for my mother.  It breaks my heart that I cannot make it easier for her.  It is a road she must travel alone.  I can be there to support her, but what works for me may not work for her and I need to be patient with that.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve. 

In the eight months since my dad passed away, I have broken down a few times.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it consumes me.  More often than not, I try to avoid thinking about it for fear of losing control.  Dispatchers by nature are control freaks.  Losing control kind of terrifies me.   The sadness tends to hit me out of the blue when I’m least expecting it.  If I had to visualize it, it would be a big wave crashing onto the shore.  It is overwhelming and knocks me off my feet.  It feels like a riptide that tries to pull me into a dark ocean of sorrow.  I wasn’t ready for my dad to go.  I had sixteen months to prepare for it, but I wasn’t ready.  I have found myself battling to stay on the shore.  There are times when I want to dive into that sorrow, but I fear I might drown and never surface.  What if I dive in, lose myself in grief and can’t come back up for air?  Would I be able to perform my job to the best of my ability by allowing myself to really feel the loss of my father?  I’m not sure I would.  So I stand on the shore and look at that endless ocean and the waves that threaten to pull me under.  Part of me wants to dive in and lose myself in the grief that beckons me, knowing I need to feel that sorrow in order to get past it.  The other part of me fights to stand my ground on the shore because people count on me to be that rock that they so dearly need in their time of crisis.  I don’t know how to grieve and still be strong.  The fear of letting go and really grieving for the loss of my father scares me. 

During the first grief support group meeting, as I listened to the others give a brief summary of what brought them there, I heard many stories of heartache and loss.  A lot of deaths caused by cancer (my father included), vehicle accidents, children taken way too young, suicide and even murder.  My heart broke for each and every person in that room.  As I started talking about my father, a few tears managed to escape.  I was grateful for the abundance of Kleenex in the room.  I found myself not only thinking of my father, but thinking of many of the callers I have had over the years that called 911 to report a death.   I didn’t tell the group about those thoughts, but they were there.   I thought of the mothers I have spoken to that have dialed 911 when they found their children who committed suicide.  I thought of the children who have called trying to save their parents who decided life was too difficult to live.  I thought of the husbands and wives that have called when their spouse who was so ill finally stopped breathing.  I thought of the woman that went looking for her husband when he didn’t come home from his daily run and found him dead on the running trail with the family dog that wouldn’t leave his side.  I thought of the mother who came home to find her baby boy murdered by the father that was supposed to love him.  I thought of all those people, both the deceased and the survivors and grieved for them too.  Honestly, it felt overwhelming.  I felt guilty for not being able to only think of my father.   Did that mean I didn’t love him enough?  All of those other people were strangers to me.  How could they have such a strong hold on my heart?   It is a rare occasion that I can put a face to a name when I answer a 911 line, but I still carry those callers in my heart.  I hear their voices in my head.  They are a part of me, but I never allowed myself to really feel their grief.  I listened to their cries and their pleas for help, their anger and shock and disbelief at the situation, but I never allowed myself to bring them or those feelings to the surface.  I forced myself tuck them safely in the back of my mind and I moved on to the next call.   Not only was I grieving for my father, but for all those calls I have taken over the years.   I know in my heart that it doesn’t mean I didn’t love my father enough.  My dad was my biggest fan.  I miss him so much I wonder if this ache will ever subside.  It’s difficult to keep a positive attitude when I feel so sad inside.

 It takes a certain type of person to handle what we go through on a daily basis in the 911 center.     Avoidance is my coping mechanism that allows me to do this job.  Surely, I can’t be the only dispatcher alive that uses this mechanism.    Dispatchers are often an outlet for the public.  There isn’t a dispatcher out there who hasn’t been screamed at and called a variety of inappropriate names by a multitude of callers.  We are the first contact during a crisis and people handle stress in very different ways.  We often take the brunt of the verbal assault.  To do this job, you cannot take it personally.  You have to blow it off.  You can’t do this job (and do it well) if you break down  and cry every time someone yells at you whether it’s a citizen, officer, fire chief or sergeant.  You have to have incredibly thick skin.  That being said, as dispatchers, we tend to become a bit callous.  We use humor to deal with the seriousness of the situation.   It’s a way to survive this job.  I have become numb to a lot of things.  I find that I have to be.  I wouldn’t be able to do my job effectively if I really allowed myself to “feel” the anger, sadness and sometimes helplessness that come with the territory of being a dispatcher.  Although I can’t speak for other dispatchers, I know that it takes quite a bit to get me upset in my life outside of work.  I tend to not understand people who “sweat the small stuff.”  If it isn’t life threatening, I really just don’t see the point in worrying about it.  My children know they have to be on fire or bleeding to really get my attention at times. (They might argue that leaving a mess in the kitchen or their rooms gets them  plenty of  attention.)   I know this has been difficult for them.  As a parent, we are often told by our kids (especially teenagers) that we “just don’t understand.”  I do understand, but if the situation doesn’t involve a dismemberment or loss of life, I really don’t lose any sleep over it.  It is what it is, so to speak.  Move on.  Believe me when I say that I haven’t always been this way.  It has taken many years to get to this mindset I have – good or bad.  Perhaps it is a mixture of the effects of my job as well as a bit of wisdom that comes with age.  I can tell you that I am much happier now not worrying about the little things in life than I was twenty years ago when I worried about everything.  Life just doesn’t have to be that difficult.  Life is too short to not enjoy it. 

So currently, I am taking it one day at a time.  I miss my father more than words can say.  I am hopeful that time will make things easier and the ache of his loss won’t feel so sharp.  Those who have traveled this path before me have told me that time heals.  I will figure out a way to allow myself to grieve this loss because I know I need to in order to heal.  I will do my best to comfort and support my mother, my siblings and my own children who are feeling the loss just as deeply as I am.  I will keep a positive attitude because life is more good than bad.  I was blessed to have my dad for nearly 40 years of my life.  He is gone but not forgotten.  God will see me through this and I know my father is in a better place. 

I am including a link to a song that has helped me for reasons I can’t begin to explain.  A woman with an extraordinary voice sang this during a “Blue Christmas” service for people who were grieving during the holidays last year.  It is a beautiful song.

 Below is the link for the grief support group I found.  The workbook is extremely helpful and they have support groups in the United States, Canada and Internationally.