[This is] one of these days that is going to live in infamy, a day of collective remembrance. ~ Frank M. Ochberg, MD
A reader writes: With all the focus on the anniversary of September 11th, I find myself weepy all day as I remember all those who died that day (including a former colleague who perished in the World Trade Center), as well as other loved ones who've died but not on September 11th. Can you offer up any insight into this kind of collective grief?
My response: You are not alone in the sorrow you're experiencing, my friend, as on this day our entire nation is called to remember the anniversary of September 11th. For many Americans the feelings of grief associated with this event may seem as new and as raw as they did when these terrorist attacks first happened in 2001. A newscast or film clip from September 11 can catch us by surprise, acting as a trigger, and it's as if we're confronted with the event for the first time, all over again.
Like aftershocks following an earthquake, some of the feelings we experienced then and thought we had put behind us can crash in upon us like a tidal wave - especially when we are flooded with so many reminders in the media. Painful images surround us, and it feels as if we're starting the entire mourning process anew.
Dr. Frank Ochberg's Interview
On the first anniversary of September 11, an informative interview on this subject was conducted with Dr. Frank Ochberg, founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and an expert in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Ochberg described September 11 as "one of these days that is going to live in infamy, a day of collective remembrance." He noted that there are some people "who lost a loved one on 9/11 or people for whom events were so personal and so intense that the anniversary and public expression is bound to return them to the scene . . . but it doesn't mean that you are actually back there . . . [and] it does not mean you're going to have to recover from the start all over again. Even if we did not lose a loved one in the attacks of 9/11," Dr. Ochberg continues, "the images can remind us of our own tragic losses that may have gone unrecognized and unacknowledged."
Plan Ahead for Anniversary Dates of Loss
It is wise to remember that oftentimes the anticipation of an anniversary date can be worse than the actual day. When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it helps to identify those days, events and seasons that are likely to intensify and rekindle your pain, and build comfort and healing into them. Plan what you're going to do ahead of time, even if you plan to be alone. Don't set yourself up for a bad day. Let your friends and relatives know in advance which days and events are significant for you. Verbalize your needs and include them in your plans. They may be very willing to help, but need for you to tell them how.
If you're feeling anxious, confused or immobilized as a certain date or time approaches, get the reassurance you need by participating in an online grief discussion group, attending an in-person grief support group or speaking with a bereavement counselor.
Handle Your Memories With Care
If your memories are painful and unpleasant, they can be hurtful and destructive. If they create longing and hold you to the past, they can interfere with your willingness to move on. You can choose which parts of life you shared that you wish to keep and which parts you want to leave behind. Soothe your pain by thinking of happy as well as sad memories. The happiness you experienced with your loved one belongs to you forever. Hold onto those rich memories, and give thanks for the life of the person you've lost instead of brooding over the last days. Build "memory time" into the day, or pack an entire day with meaning. It's easier to cope with memories you've chosen than to have them take you by surprise. Immerse yourself in the healing power of remembrance. Go to a special place, read aloud, listen to a favorite song. Celebrate what once was and is no more.
Pay Special Attention to the Needs of Children and Teens
If you have or know of a child or teen who is grieving the loss of someone close, be aware of some of the helpful articles and resources provided by various organizations including
- The National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC)
- Talk to Children about Terrorism
- Starting the Conversation about September 11th
- Hospice of the Valley's Teen Grief Support Program:
Honor the Memory of Your Loved One with Service
The families of 9/11 were instrumental in creating the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance. Service to others can be healing and transformational. Visit their service and remembrance site and see if some form of service to others calls out to you.
Remember that Letting Go Doesn't Mean Forgetting
Letting go of what used to be is not an act of disloyalty, and it does not mean forgetting your lost loved one(s). You will never forget, because a part of this person remains in you. Letting go means leaving behind the sorrow and pain of grief and choosing to go on, taking with you only those memories and experiences that enhance your ability to grow and expand your capacity for happiness.
As you've already discovered, you're never really finished with loss when someone significant leaves you. This loss will resurface during key developmental periods for the rest of your life. You will have to face it again and again, not as the person you are today, but as the person you will have grown to be in two or five or twenty years from now. Each time you will face it on new terms, but it won't take as long and it won't be as difficult.
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