for Answers Following a Fellow Firefighter’s Suicide
By Frank Fennell
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) .
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.
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