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Commentary

Harrowing Past Is Still Part of Us

It will take love and remembrance to heal the wounds from 9/11.

September 07, 2003|Gail Sheehy | Gail Sheehy is the author of "Passages" and, most recently, "Middletown, America: One Town's Passage From Trauma to Hope" (Random House, 2003).

"We don't normally cover anniversaries," said the TV producer, whose network was undecided on how to "handle" the second anniversary of 9/11. The person calling on behalf of family members refrained from pointing out that Americans don't normally pass through security in the country's military command center and then get blown up at their desks. Or go to work in the towers of Manhattan and face a choice between jumping out the window or being incinerated while their families watch the spectacle on TV.

It is a natural human inclination to tune out reminders of a horrific event. A decade of lapsed memory followed our war in Vietnam. Why should we remember and reflect on Sept. 11 at the risk of reopening wounds still painfully fresh?

We are approaching the most dangerous of anniversaries -- the second. Support systems fade. Media turn away. Friends, family, even spouses tend to lose patience with those still sorrowing and parrot our culture's popular bromides: "Time to move on," "put it behind us," and the cruelest of all cliches: "closure." The very word "closure" implies the hole will just heal up and one can then plant another flower over it and move on.

In truth, the wound never fully closes after a traumatic loss. The 3,000 lives taken on 9/11 robbed tens of thousands of family members and colleagues of those they loved, but that was only the first blow. The news leading up to the second anniversary is that nearly half of those who "vaporized" in the twin towers left no identifiable trace -- nothing to make their deaths real so the grieving process can begin.

Yet, among Americans lucky enough not to have directly suffered a loss on Sept. 11, it is common to hear comments like: "A lot of other people have lost their loved ones in auto accidents or sudden heart attacks; why are we making such a big deal out of these deaths?"

"What's different about us is that I buried my husband three times," says Debbie Hemschoot of Middletown, N.J. The first time, she buried mementos for her son's sake. The second time, it was ashes from ground zero. Then the day after Mother's Day, Hemschoot was called by the medical examiner's office: "We found a piece of your husband."

Who among the public would have guessed that the 9/11 victims' families were getting their loved ones back, literally, piece by piece?

The Tietjen family was relieved when told that their son, Kenny, one of the heroic Port Authority police officers who saved lives at the World Trade Center, had finally been identified by DNA testing. Just before Christmas, Kenny's sister, Laurie, and two of his fellow officers went into New York to collect the remains. The two cops emerged from the makeshift morgue ashen-faced, carrying a stretcher covered with a flag. A stretcher with only a few tiny bumps on it.

Laurie cried aloud: "Where is everything?"

When colleagues later asked Laurie why she was so grumpy, she kept the grisly truth to herself. Like many of the families, she has internalized the societal pressure to "get on with it." To protect their jobs, these relatives suffer in silence -- flashbacks, panic attacks, depression and other symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Beyond the families of victims, tens of thousands of witnesses and survivors from 9/11 are carrying heavy baggage, many of them suffering flashbacks and panic attacks. One tough prosecutor whose office, a block from the White House, was evacuated that day was told by a Secret Service agent there was a fourth plane in the air and, it was believed, headed for the White House. She says she will never get over the horrible sense of helplessness she felt as she stood among her co-workers, searching the sky and thinking: "Where's the plane? Is it going to shoot out of the sky at us?"

Recovery workers who dug for months through the smoke and fires at ground zero now learn that the White House rewarded their selflessness by doctoring warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency about the carcinogens they were breathing. Most have had no mental health counseling, because to seek help through official channels could mean a desk job for many, and for police officers, giving up their guns. When Port Authority police officers opened up to this writer, it was clear they were fearful of acting out their anger and sense of helplessness. "Am I gonna flip out like one of these rescue people after Columbine or Oklahoma City?" one officer blurted. "I have so much anger -- am I going to go postal? Kill myself or someone else?"

Oklahoma City points the way to the future. Eight years after suffering the deadliest terrorist bombing on American soil up to that time, those survivors have learned that the psychological effects of trauma by terrorism are cumulative and if they are ignored into the third year the likely reaction is a double-dip depression.

The alternative to pretending we can "get over it" by forgetting is to renew the memories of those taken from us. We can best do that by celebrating the way they lived, rather than recalling the way they died. Tell their stories. Bring them up as a teaching moment for the lives we are living now. Remind ourselves to do the important things we wish we had done before. As Thornton Wilder wrote in "The Bridge of San Luis Rey": "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

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