by Roxanne Hooper & Arnold LimBlack Press
Hundreds of sombre firefighters from across British Columbia marched in the streets of Victoria Monday afternoon.
Past the parliament buildings, underneath the extended fire truck ladders, and past supporters lining the streets, uniformed firefighters paraded in unison memorializing their fallen.
“(My husband) sacrificed his life for everyone, (but) he just loved his job and he didn’t need the recognition, this is over and above,” said Aldergrove’s Gena Dombrowski, who lost her husband Ernie in April 2015.
“He was just happy helping people and making sure kids were safe and taken care of,” she recalled.
A Surrey firefighter suffering from PTSD, Ernie took his own life after 10 years on the job, leaving a wife and a 13-year-old son behind. His was one of 14 names called out in remembrance at the B.C. Fallen Fire Fighters’ Memorial.
“Every day it’s not only fire calls, they are going to motor vehicle accidents and tragedies that we only see on the news and we don’t know what (firefighters) go through,” Dombrowski said.
“Especially in my husband’s case, he really took it to heart and had challenges dealing with it,” said the local widow who received a flag in her husband’s honour and clutched it to her heart throughout the ceremony.
“(Today is) bittersweet, this is wonderful, I miss my husband. My son doesn’t have a father anymore, but he loved firefighting and they are great men and women,” she said. “We just have to remember to take care of them like they take care of us,” she shared.
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CAPTION: Firefighters marched through the streets of Victoria Monday afternoon, in memory of fallen comrades. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)
Dombrowski was joined in Victoria by a newfound friend from Langley, and fellow firefighter widow, Marilyn Piticco.
The Walnut Grove woman was there with her daughter, Michelle, to honour her late husband, Randy – who died of a rare cancer in December 2015.
She was anxious, fearful, sad, and at the same time proud that she was there to honour Randy and 13 other fallen firefighters at the BC Professional Fire Fighters Association’s memorial outside the provincial legislature.
Marilyn knew the service would be overwhelming. But for her, there was another emotional layer to this week’s tribute.
After attending a similar, international memorial in Colorado last fall, Marilyn recognized a disconnect from other mourning families.
These types of services can be so emotionally overwhelming she said, because the widows are filled with pride that their “guy” is being honoured for all he did and all he sacrificed. But, at the same time, they’re sad that he’s gone and that they’ve lost something even bigger – namely sense of community that came from him being part of the brotherhood of firefighters, Marilyn explained.
Not many people understand that loss, she suggested.
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CAPTION: Marilyn and Randy Piticco, when the community drop in for a surprise birthday party (Meaghan Gipps photo)
She did manage to connect with a few of the widows during the service in Colorado Springs, and immediately upon her return home, parlayed that into something she hopes will help her and others widows moving forward.
There needs to be what she’s dubbed the “sisterhood of unfortunate widows,” Marilyn said.
So, step one, she started a closed Fire Widow Warriors Facebook group, which she believes could become an international support system for firefighter widows.
Leading up to Monday’s memorial in Victoria, she took the next step. Working with the BCPFFA and the firefighters union in Surrey, she helped facilitate a somewhat more formal get together – the day before the memorial – exclusively for the firefighters’ widows.
It offered her and the four other women who attended a sudden sense of community, of “sisterhood,” Marilyn insisted.
“It was an amazingly powerful, positive light in the midst of much sadness. That’s was just an overwhelming thing to me. I was beyond ecstatic with how it turned out,” she said of the first widows meeting.
Gathered in a “cheery room” with snacks and Kleenex boxes on the table, these women told their stories, shared a few coping mechanisms, unburdened themselves of some personal fears and anxieties, shed many tears, and “hugged it out” – together before stepping in front of a giant crowd during the service.
“It’s such an incredible roller coaster of a day,” but to be able to look out over the crowd, make eye contact with one of the fellow widows, and to just share a glance and know their supported is invaluable, she described.
“I knew their story. I was connected to them. But, it’s not that way unless it’s set up, and it’s so simple. It’s one room, time put aside privately, no one else in that room except the widows – introductions and that time set aside – and the sharing that now made us sisters – now knowing that we would care for each other,” she added.
“That changed everything, and it was such a tiny little fix,” Marilyn said, grateful that the firefighters have so willingly rallied behind her efforts to unite the widows.
While she’s doing this to help herself, and consequently others like her, Marilyn realized this week she’s also doing this for her late husband.
She’s confident this uniting effort will not only be helpful for the women involved, but offer a sense of comfort to the firefighters. It has to give them some reassurances, she said, knowing that – should something happen to them – that there is a tangible support network in place to help families move on. That would mean so much to her late husband.
“I know this is a legacy Randy would have been so proud of,” she said.
This week’s service, first and foremost was about honouring the fallen heroes, Marilyn added. But now, thanks to this new outreach effort, it’s also about honouring the women left behind.
“That sisterhood became an immediate bond…” she said. “We all know, now, that we’ll be there for one and other.”