EMMITSBURG, MD -- For many families and colleagues of fallen firefighters, traveling to Maryland for a formal memorial service is daunting.
Some have never left their communities let alone fly across the country.
But, waiting for them are people who know what they’re going through, the anxiety, the overwhelming feelings.
They know because they were once in the same place.
Patrick O’Brien, whose father died in his arms at a house fire in Rhode Island in 2004, returns to help by giving a hug, a special look or pat on the shoulder.
“Returning here to help others has been part of the healing process for me,” he said, adding that sharing memories with others who’ve lost someone in the fire service helps him.
Likewise, Heidi Packard, who lost her husband, David, to a heart attack after a call, knows she wouldn’t be in the place she is now without the support of fellow survivors.
Packard, who got little compassion from her husband’s department in New Hampshire, considers fellow survivors her family.
Their kindness, words and hugs are her memories from her first memorial weekend.
“I remember having a total meltdown,” she recalled. “And, looking up to find someone…”
While the gestures were important, just having an ear was nice.
“When I look at their faces when they come into registration, I know what that means. I know because it was the same for me…”
Among the myriad of emotions, survivors feel helpless and anxious as their worlds have suddenly been turned upside down. Many are left to raise children and take care of homes and parents by themselves.
Jennifer Cormican described the weekend when her father was honored as a blur. “There were some many things going on. It was a fuzzy haze.”
Her father, Bruce Cormican, was swept away by an undertow during a body recovery.
“When I came to volunteer, things started coming back in one big piece…”
Cormican, like the other survivors, say they share a bond and consider themselves family.
The compassion and understanding impressed Gladys Falkenhan, whose husband, Mark, was honored Sunday.
Falkenhan said it was good to attend a support group with others who lost spouses. And, getting to share with former survivors meant a great deal.
“They understand because they’re like us...We formed an immediate bond…They spoke so freely about their losses…”
Falkenhan said she’s looking forward to returning the gestures she received this year.
“I’ll be back to haul bags, give a hug or hand out a tissue – whatever.”