Hope & Healing at the NFFF Survivors Conference

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...

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 lhurley@firehero.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.