September 11th Anniversary
By Dr. Robin F. Goodman, VOICES Director of Family Programs
One of the most challenging aspects of the tragic attacks on September 11th has been the added burden of managing so private an experience in the midst of such public exposure. There are many places, activities, and days throughout the year that are personally significant; a favorite restaurant, a religious holiday, a birth, a first day of college. But on the anniversary of September 11th , victims, survivors, family members, friends, rescue workers, and all those having a deep connection to the tragedy are bombarded with public reminders of that life changing day.
Just as individuals were different in their pre September 11th experiences, they continue to have their own unique thoughts, feelings, and reactions to what happened on that day. Those who were directly impacted by the events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania have often likely felt different or out of step with those who were not involved. And on the anniversary, they may feel even more distant and separate from others. Even those who have found a new and comfortable place in their life may realize that painful memories of the day still burn strongly at certain moments. There is no correct way to feel or handle the anniversary. Rather the goal is to discover the best way for you and your family to mark – or simply get through - the anniversary of what is still a terrible and unimaginable tragedy.
Things to consider when planning and managing the anniversary of September 11th
• Think anew and plan ahead: Each anniversary is a new anniversary. The first one is very different from the fourth which will be very different from the tenth. Many things change as time goes by. It can be useful to take a look back at how previous anniversaries were handled. Think about what was helpful, what did not work, and any new ideas for the day. You may want to preserve some rituals, abandon others, or try out something different.
• Reflect on the memorial aspect of the day. The anniversary of a traumatic event can be filled with unpleasant and painful reminders. But it may also be a time to access, embrace, and share precious positive memories about a loved one who died.
• Respect one another, allow for differences, and work together: Different family members may have different reactions, styles, and preferences. Be open to everyone’s wishes while being reasonable about what is possible. Some people prefer to connect with others who went through the same experience and attend public events, whereas others may want to avoid large commemorative gatherings. Family members wishing to go their separate ways should make room for others’ ideas and find ways to accommodate each other.
• Have appropriate expectations: The day can stir up a variety of emotions and “anniversary reactions”, or a re-experiencing of original thoughts and feelings. Do not be surprised if certain feelings recur or even if new ones arise. Well intended or unaware friends and family, for whom September 11th has become more of a distant memory, may have expected or advised others to “get on with life.” But individuals have their own timetable when on the complex journey of trauma and grief.
• Be generous and gentle with yourself and others: Give yourself and others permission to experience whatever feelings surface. Be mindful of what is personally calming, restorative, or meaningful and find ways to engage in even small purposeful activities; such as time alone, a visit to a burial site, coffee with a close friend, exercise, journaling etc. Individuals should pay attention to what particular strengths contribute to their resilience.
• Involve others: Think about your wider network of support. Consider how to discuss and involve friends, family, and co-workers in the anniversary. Support is an extremely necessary and helpful part of the ongoing and lifelong coping process. Enlisting others suggestions, time, energy – for car pooling, listening, dog sitting, accompaniment to an event – also allows the other person to experience the gift of helping.
• Consider special needs of children: Planning and discussion varies depending on the age, personality, and September 11th experience of a child or teen. Parents may need to plan for children with a wide range of ages and reactions – some needing their usual routine, some wanting to be with friends, and some wanting to stay close to familiar family members. Parents with school age children should also check in with school personnel to discuss any special needs, notify staff of any concerns, make any particular arrangements, and find out how the anniversary is handled. And always keep in mind that children look to the adults around them for a model of how to manage difficult times and feelings.
• Encourage open communication and look ahead: It can be important to take stock of where different family and friends are now in their lives. Talking about the anniversary may also provide an opportunity for open and honest discussion about the original event, different feelings about the people who were affected and died, and hopes and dreams for the future.