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Gallows Humor

OK, guilty as charged. I've passed on my share of gallows humor. Having worked in the police and fire service for 16 years I have had my share of bizarre days/nights and calls. I mean, what do you say about the guy who calls 911 for an ambulance at 3:30 in the morning for a toothache? Or, what can you say about the guy who drives away from the hit and run and leaves his license plate at the scene of the crime? Or worse yet, what about the guy who tries to shoot himself in the head….but misses? Dark humor, or better known as gallows humor, seems to be standard practice to those of us who work as first responders. According to Dartmouth Medicine Magazine a survey of EMT/paramedics found that 90% admitted to using gallows humor. Gallows humor is a witticism in the face of death, destruction or other perceived major stressor of life. And as anyone who has been in emergency services knows, most of the calls to 911 for service are an emergency for the caller, no matter how asinine we know they are. And our humor in the face of horror/emergency helps us put these events into perspective.

As first responders we not only see the horror of life first hand, but we also see the absurdity of what some people do with their life. In this our empathy is stretched to the limits. It is commonly taught by senior members to newbies that what we say among ourselves in the rig or back at the firehouse should never be told to the patient, family members or bystanders. But in our mishandling of our words there have been many a first responder who has lost their job and loved career because they said the wrong thing in front of the wrong person. But as a chaplain, I have been wondering if gallows humor is even right for me? In the fire service Often gallows humor among the staff tends to build a bond among the responders. A bond that is also needed as an effective chaplain, one that says that I am allowed to be one of the gang. Gallows humor is also used by first responders as a psychological pressure relief valve or way to handle the stress of the job that is increasingly more difficult as our society grows. It gives us a sense of power to an otherwise powerless situation. As a chaplain who sees the horror of life, sometimes that pressure relief valve can be mighty welcoming. But let's be real about it. Gallows humor is judgmental, demeaning, dehumanizes, belittles and objectifies people already in vulnerable positions and situations. If I am a man of integrity, shouldn't what I say in front of my fellow first responders be the exact same thing I say in front of the patients and their families…and my God? Shouldn't I be the caring person, no matter how stupid I see the call? What I am talking about, ultimately, is how we handle stress. I mean, if we didn't handle the stress of this job, we would all have very short careers or wind up the psychiatric wing of the hospital. If we don't find a way to cope with all the vicarious traumatization that we experience, then it would stay bottled up in us until it comes out inappropriately. It seems that one of the more common ways of handling stress is through sharing gallows humor. Now, remember, as I write this, the only one I can really point my finger at is me. I know that in my weakness, (lack of sleep), more people look like idiots and are prone to my gallows humor. I also know that gallows humor is here to stay in public safety service. In fact, I know that if I tried to squelch it among my fire guys I would probably come across as a prude and that would be the end of my connection with my firefighters. But how far can and should I go as a chaplain?

It is said that the opposite of judgement is compassion. In the gospels we see that Jesus expressed compassion for those who were sick and hurting or were without a leader. In this we never saw Him mock the crowds, but instead have great compassion on them. Now, I realize that humor must be part of every believer's life. But, humor at the expense of those to whom we minister just doesn't seem right. It doesn't show integrity. What do we do with the stress of the call? Jesus found time to get away and spend it in prayer talking with Father God. While this may not always be an option for hurried first responders, I believe it is a model to shoot for. The stresses of this job will tend to suck the life out of you. As a chaplain I know that I must follow and demonstrate a different model for stress relief. So, how am I going to handle it when those around me start talking in gallows humor? Well, I hope I will give them all the same grace I need.

Chaplain Chris Wade, Vice President

SC Public Safety Chaplains Association

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