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What We Can Learn From 9/11

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Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, many people are writing about the meaning, significance and even personal memories of that awful day. 

There is an aspect of the event, though, that is particularly meaningful to those associated with Hope Connection — group leaders, current and past members alike.

That aspect concerns the  process of moving beyond grief. Unlike many people who experience the loss of a loved one as a largely individual event, there is a group of people mainly concentrated in the greater New York area who share a communal loss. People have neighbors, friends, co-workers who have shared a similar loss at the same time for the same reason.

Gail Sheehy recognized the unique nature of this shared loss, and has explored its nuances in a new book called Middletown, America.

In an article on BeliefNet, Ms. Sheehy says, “I began reading about certain communities that had been extremely hard hit, that by some fickle selection of fate had an inordinate number of deaths. The name Middletown kept coming up. I’d never head of it before, but it also rang a bell because of a famous book about America in the 1920s called Middletown.

“So I went there on the first and only evening of their vigil about three weeks after 9/11.

“People were just wide open at that point. One widow began talking to me about what she was experiencing – that she didn’t know any of the other widows, although she knew there were many in the town. That really nobody knew one another, that it was very separated and that she was feeling very isolated. And I also noticed that the people who looked as if they were clerics, the people who spoke were stumbling around and looking as dazed and overwhelmed as everybody else.

“So I just plunged in and began to spend half my time in Middletown, gradually working my way from the outer edges in, as I met one person they introduced me to another.”

From that experience Ms. Sheehy developed her book. It contains powerful insights on the nature of grief, including this observation on the inclination to put up a façade. “Very early on one of the mental health experts from the county had been asked by FEMA to do an assessment of the mental health needs around the various communities around New Jersey. And of the six where she interviewed, she designated [this community] as going to have the hardest time. Because of its affluence, because everybody has to put on a mask of perfection, of alrightness. To break through that, to let the mask drop was going to be the biggest obstacle they would have to overcome in order to find community, resources or help that they would definitely need – and that did turn out to be true.”

She also finds a striking characteristic in those who were able to at least begin to heal. She cites two clergymen: “Rabbi Levin and Parson Monroe, a Presbyterian reverend, noticed that people were so open, so needing, so loving, so frightened that they would stop each other on the street and talk about deep things. Not gossip, not chitchat. That went on for two to three months. But then depression settled over the community, and people became almost mute in their shock and numbness and grief. And then it began to transmute for many into anger or rage or withdrawal. But the people who were already on a path of searching for deeper meaning, for their spiritual anchor in the world, those people were accelerated in their search. And they walked through doors that they saw were opened by this tragedy to find more meaning in life and in relationships. Those are the people that the clergy saw as finding a real resurgence of spiritual need and belief. On a deeper level, people were really questioning faith that they might have accepted in a rather passive way. Now they challenged — and reaffirmed.”

Even though 9/11 was a singular event, there is a commonality to grief, as seen in this comment: “Eighteen months was kind of the peak of where grief really feels bottomless, but grieving is a spiral. That’s one thing I think I’ve learned, grieving isn’t linear, it’s a spiral and the mind takes in only what it can handle. And a person may seem to be moving until a memory or a sensory detail or another trauma piles on. And then the person loops back down into despair, and it’s necessary to thrust forward, to complete the loop and continue to move forward again.”

Grief is such a complicated human emotion that there is always room for exploring its multi-faceted nature. You may read more here about Gail Sheehy’s new book, Middletown, America.

By Don Phillipson