Welcome to the Stronger Families Podcast, a space for candid conversations with real heroes that sheds light on the side of things not glorified in the media. In each episode, we learn about what goes on when these heroes go home, so that together we can build a stronger family. Today, host Today, Noel Meador, host and CEO of Stronger Families, interviews Dana about first responders and mental health.
To begin, Dana introduces herself as a mother of two and a consultant for an insurance company. She describes herself as an overly caffeinated, church on Sunday, cussing sometimes type of person. She spoke at a first responder conference and shared her story. Dana talks about her late husband, Eric, and his life as a first responder. They met in high school and he went on a ride along, which sparked his interest in patrol. He did the department’s reserve program while going to school, and a position came open for patrol and got it. He had a field training officer he was placed with and he told him and his community that he was having difficulty processing what he was seeing. He was then switched to a community service officer, which was still within the department, but not out on patrol. This job was amazing for him and he thrived until 2001 when he got hit by a city bus in an accident. The city bus was coming down the overpass and was turning when it shouldn’t have. The bus turned right into his driver’s door and the biceps ripped straight off of his bone, and that was his smallest injury that day. No one would operate on him because he was only 31.
After that accident, Eric tried everything to stop the pain. He tried acupuncture and pain meds, but still suffered from so much pain. He lived with it and was trying to figure out his place. He was getting his masters degree and teaching introduction to criminal justice. He became part of the police union and was appointed treasurer. He had a passion for helping coworkers and became the union president. He then participated in a blind study where five candidates had a device surgically implanted in their back and 5 had placebos. This device was supposed to simulate signals to the brain that they’re not in pain. They were willing to try anything. He had 1 year of intense physical therapy and at the end of the year, they went back to the doctor to see if he received the real device or the placebo. He got the real device, but it didn’t do a thing for his pain. This triggered Eric’s “year of darkness” and right after his back surgery, he also tore his rotator cuff and had shoulder surgery. There was cross prescribing going on and there was a big chemical change in Eric.
Eric would go on and off his medication, which was very jolting to his system. He was in bed a lot and this was his way of escaping the pain. When you are sick, you just feel gross and want to fast forward to when you feel better. When you’re sleeping, you don’t feel yourself hurting. The only time Eric felt like he wasn’t hurting was when he was asleep or in bed. This was his way of detaching and his loss of identity. He was not able to participate in daily life and it impacted his work. He was over medicating and was not himself. He lost the union president position and stopped participating in stages, which was his way of letting go before he died. He took FMLA after he lost the union position and the day when he was supposed to go back to work, she started getting calls and texts that he didn’t show up. His coworkers called her and they went to the hospital together. Eric went to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the heart and the ER did everything they could.
Suicide has been labeled as “selfish” and it’s easy to think of addiction as homeless people, but Eric became a shell of who he was. He went through a treatment center 6 months prior and was getting better, but when he came out he could not cope with or escape his pain. He saw himself as a burden and he went through that anguish to continue to fight through the pain. His walls started closing in and he faced hopelessness. There were many prominent signs because it was a daily struggle for him. The more he could not participate, the more it added to his guilt. Dana is not angry with him– her husband was mentally sick and physically in pain for 13 years. He couldn’t wait to get to heaven. She went into single Mom mode the last year of his life and that prepped her for the role she didn’t know was waiting. There has been a ton of support in her widow journey. When you’re in it, it’s really difficult to know what to do. She spoke at the first responder conference and shared what she would’ve wanted Eric to hear to hopefully make a difference. She talked about finding your support and community, and that it’s okay to talk about stuff. It doesn’t have to be with a counselor, but it needs to come out and you need to put yourself first.
The first year and second year after Eric’s death was different. The first year, you are in a grief or numb bubble, and you go through your “year of firsts.” The first birthday, anniversary, Christmas without them. It hurts and stings, but you are still in shock. The second year hurts differently because you don’t have that grief numbing you to your pain. Also, her support system was her family and their grief was just as palpable. The day Eric died revealed what her real job is: her children and making sure they are okay. She makes sure that her kids still get to be kids and that they have counseling available to them. She hasn’t felt shame or regret, but wondered what more she could’ve done and what that would have looked like. She still honors her husband by talking about him and sharing memories together with family.
To support people walking through loss by suicide, she suggests having a community or support group that makes you feel like you’re not alone. She had a friend put a legal pad on the kitchen counter to have people sign up for tasks around the home that needed to be done. This helped tremendously and on your grief journey, you don’t really even know how to ask for what you need.
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0:43 – Host Noel introduces and welcomes guest, Dana.
1:28 – Dana introduces herself.
2:55 – Dana shares how she lost her first responder husband, Eric.
17:01 – Did you see signs and symptoms of Eric struggling mentally?
30:44 – Dana shares what she went through as Eric’s walls were closing in.
37:34 – How to move forward when you lose a loved one to suicide.
43:26 – The difference between the first and second year after Eric’s death.
47:34 – Ways to help someone walking through suicide loss.
52:40 – Dana and her children’s next chapter.
1:02:33 – Closing remarks.
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