Attendees at the 2012 Survivors Conference particpated in a variety of networking events and workshops in Fort Lauderdale.
Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
Jamie Holmes never worried about managing her family's finances, maintaining the yard or the family's cars. The self-described "Suzie Homemaker" relied on her husband, Paul, a firefighter/paramedic in Douglas County, GA, to handle those tasks while she focused on raising their young daughter and making their house a loving and comfortable home. When he died in the line of duty on Dec. 28, 2009, the life she knew was turned upside down.
With her family in another state and what felt like a limited support system, Holmes had to figure things out on her own. For more than a year, she faced many challenges. "I didn't do the bills. I didn't fix things around the house or work on the car. I didn't take care of any of those kinds of things," she said. "It was a really big wake-up call, trying to figure out how to do it all."
In October of 2010, Holmes and members of her family attended the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend to honor Paul's memory. She said she immediately felt welcomed by everyone there. During the weekend, she learned about the annual Survivors Conference in San Antonio the following spring.
"The Foundation recognized that the survivors could benefit from an event away from the Memorial Weekend that would be more relaxed and bring together new families as well as those who may have suffered a loss years ago," said Linda Hurley, director of Survivor Programs with the NFFF.
The first Fire Service Survivors Conference was held in 2006 in Greenbelt, MD, in conjunction with the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) annual meeting and dinner. The days were filled with support workshops and programs to assist the attendees and evening events that allowed them to get to know each other in a casual setting.
After the third annual conference in Greenbelt, the Foundation decided to change locations each year to make it more accessible for survivors from around the country. "We wanted to give our families an opportunity to go someplace new and different, and have a chance to network with others who had experienced a similar loss," said Hurley.
The Foundation also understood that the firefighter who died was most often the primary earner, and the expense of coming to the Washington, DC, area every year could be financially difficult for many survivors.
The conference, which includes all the workshop and activities, is free. Through a grant from the Department of Justice and support from Motorola Solutions and Tyco International, lodging and meals are provided. This funding allows NFFF to also assist with some transportation costs.
"I didn't have a clue what the conference would be like and didn't know what to expect, but I decided to go and see if it would help," Jamie said.
She described what she experienced at the conference as a life saver.
"The workshops I attended gave me confidence to attempt things I wouldn't normally do," she said. From counseling sessions to classes on financial management, she felt stronger and better about herself. She also felt more empowered to help her little girl deal with her feelings.
But even more than the information she got from the workshop, Holmes said the opportunities to talk with other survivors made a profound difference.
"I'm a very independent person," she explained. "But as I talked with other survivors and heard about their experiences, I was more willing to open myself up. I realized I can ask for help and we can lean on each other."
Most importantly, she explained, she realized no one at the conference was judgmental about anything she said. Until attending the conference in 2011, Holmes said she didn't feel like she had a safe outlet to express her sadness about her husband's death or her concerns for her daughter and how she would cope.
At the Survivors Conference, it was different. "You can say I'm sad. You can say I miss my husband and so many other things. You feel like you're finally in your own skin."
Angie Heusinger agrees. She lost her son, Jonathan Croom, a firefighter from Buffalo, NY, in December of 2009. She describes the year following his death as a whirlwind that left her feeling overwhelmed. She and her family did not attend the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service in 2010. As her husband and other sons were coping with the loss in different ways, she felt isolated. When they received the invitation to the 2011 Survivors Conference, the family agreed she should go.
She said that very soon after arriving at the conference, everyone welcomed her and quickly became familiar. She could understand everything they expressed, and they could understand her.
"It was like we had our own language," Angie said. "It didn't matter if they lost their firefighter one year ago or 20 years ago. There's no timeline for what you're going through in this journey. Everyone understands that."
She said the conference introduced her to the idea that there were other survivors who would listen to her talk and were willing to share their personal struggles with their losses. These connections were a breakthrough for her. Talking with others who had similar experiences helped to validate her feelings of anger and sadness.
"Grief has a certain look. You can see it on someone's face and in their eyes. It's palpable and it scares people," she said. "But at the conference, you realize it's ok. No one's afraid to talk to you about your feelings."
Both Holmes and Heusinger say they have developed friendships through the conferences that they know they can count on any day of the year. "You go home and get back to your busy life, but you know someone is always there for you," said Heusinger. "There are days that you just feel that someone you love is missing. Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays or just out of the blue. But you know there are folks available to help you shoulder that pain."
Lee Ann Koval-Martin, who attended her first Survivor's Conference in 2012, says that the openness and willingness to share experiences reinforced the sense of "family" that is so prevalent within the fire service. Martin's husband, Jeff Koval, died in a wildland fire in 2003 and while she has been involved in other opportunities through the Foundation, she hadn't attended a Survivors Conference.
"People are there because they truly want to be there and they want to learn and share with others," she said. "In this community, we may have different circumstances but we all understand each other's feelings." She said this bond was invaluable and reassuring, not only for herself but also for her family. Martin recently remarried and her husband, Dante, joined her at the conference so he could better understand what she and their children were feeling.
"He was so impressed by how welcoming and friendly everyone was," explained Martin. "We attended sessions for widows and widowers as well as one on remarrying and were able to talk openly with others."
All three women plan to attend future Survivors Conferences so they can continue to help others on their journeys. Holmes explained that when she went to her second Survivors Conference in 2012 she went with an open mind and an open heart. She was thankful for all those who had helped her in the past and was ready to help others.
"Now, I think 'How can I help someone else get through this?' I want them to know there is hope."
The 2013 Annual Fire Service Survivors Conference will be held April 14 - 17 in Phoenix, AZ. For information about the conference, contact Linda Hurley, director of Survivor Programs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MOLLY NATCHIPOLSKY is a writer with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Before joining the Foundation she worked in public relations and communication for several non-profit organizations including the National Osteoporosis Foundation, the International Food Information Council and the American Red Cross.