I actually started writing this post six months ago. It’s probably not like you’d think. I had my initial moments of grief when a friend and colleague passed away late last year. But after that, like one of us has said, “It’s like I keep expecting her to walk through the door any minute.” It’s like she went away and we haven’t really come to the belief that she’s gone.
Susan’s credentials as a leader were impressive. She came on board not long after our department was in the throes of a major overhaul of our command staff as a result of retirements and going on to bigger venues. But while her impact on our organization was large, her time with us was short and to be quite candid, the changes she endeavored to make didn’t quite stick the way they should have.
I guess one of the reasons I never finished posting (because the post actually went on from here) was that it kept sounding like a eulogy and that’s not what I wanted to do. This issue isn’t about me or anyone else who is still around picking up the pieces, but about moving forward, transitioning, living through a traumatic event and learning how to move on.
I dragged this back out again from my “drafts” pile because for the better part of yesterday, I was trying to catch up on my workload and making pretty decent progress. I think I’m only backlogged to November now (that’s LAST November). Things came to a crawl, however, when I began to tackle the next priority on the list, which was (is, because I’m not done) a “Line of Duty Death” guideline (LODD, for my non-fire readers). While Susan’s death was not an LODD, it was very much about a loss to our fire department family. I have always been impressed by our ability to rally, and of course, the amazing memorial that was virtually shot from the hip.
We can always look back in amazement at what we instinctively got right and make notes about what we probably could have done better at. Her family asked us to coordinate the services and a few stalwart colleagues/friends jumped in there and did a pretty damn good job organizing and contacting and negotiating to create a memorial worthy of commemorating Susan’s impact on our lives. While there’s none of us that wouldn’t have wanted to fill Yankee Stadium for her, we did a good job of filling the venue we had, and the service was both tearful and funny, the way she probably would have wanted it.
But the moral of this story is that when we lose someone dear to us, we have a need to commemorate their life. The deceased are deceased and while it is my belief that we honor them by having a ceremony, and it is also my belief that they are taking in our feelings and understanding how much they meant to us from a better place, when it comes down to it, a lot of that may be more about us processing our own feelings and trying to get us to move on to the next phase of our lives.
What better memorial to another than to recognize that our beloved was such an important part of our life that the traditions they instilled in us, the commitment to excellence, and the dedication to service so ingrained in our culture, that we refused to let that value die long after that person was gone from this mortal coil. Unfortunately, when I think back on it, I think maybe we might have failed Susan.
With some substantial challenges on our horizon and after talking to others within our organization about a renewed commitment to improvement and service, I have to meditate a little on what that truly means and how to go about facilitating that change among the people I am responsible for mentoring. As a chief officer, one of the hardest things you have to do sometimes is admit to yourself that you have let your vision be narrowed by petty issues. As a chief officer, your vision can’t be obscured by the trees; you need to view the entire landscape.
My job must be to focus on positive strategic change. I have company officers who must translate that change into daily tactical objectives. If they can’t do that, they have to do some soul searching themselves, because the purpose of the officer on a team isn’t to be one of the gang, it is to lead the team. It is the job of the officer to work with other officers to form an effective cadre of other leaders and to be above pettiness themselves. When you make the choice that your badge will have bugles on it, it’s time to leave the past behind and focus on the future. And if you ca’t do that, then you need to admit that it might be better to return to the gang. No one ever said leadership was easy.
We have many people in our lives whom we love in their own special ways. All of the assembled brothers and processions of fire apparatus, all of the pipes and crossed ladders and other powerful traditions are nothing if we can’t be true to ourselves and appreciate that our calling is to serve others. Service to others is the hallmark of our tradition. People would not revere firefighters if not for their long-standing tradition of selflessness, of commitment despite adversity, and of bravery in the face of death and destruction. If we truly want to memorialize our loved ones and our brothers, we need to re-dedicate our careers toward self-improvement, education, and dedication, as well as to teach and mentor those who are behind us in the ranks.
Don’t make saying goodbye a hollow promise of honoring the deceased. The funeral is just the beginning of a new life without that person standing next to us. If they really mean something to us, we will consider the lessons they taught us and create action instead of words.