Grief Counseling Families of WTC Victims
The Immediate Impact of Terror and Loss: Breakdown and Breakthrough
(Part One of Two)
by Elaine Schwager

This leaflet in my hand
Might be all our biographies

It tells of species that become extinct
Before they are discovered
(Robert Minhinnick "The Hot House")

In the days following the attack on the World Trade Center, two slogans surfaced:

Everything has changed. Nothing will ever be the same.
If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists.

Both slogans emerge from a catastrophic wound to our psyche, which has left us shaken in our sense of safety (and of reality, resulting from a severing of the links which had kept us securely connected)--people lost, ideas believed in, values held, careers that had become identities, homes that had protected us, certainties and faiths that were our center of gravity.

Divisiveness: Recognition and Repair

Such a rupture in the consciousness of the world soul does not come out of the blue; it is a manifestation of deep-seated divisiveness. If we can use this tragedy to examine the consciousness that caused the rupture, and also that consciousness which instinctively, defensively divides the world into good and evil, we have an opportunity to advance, individually and collectively.

Expressed in the first slogan is the recognition that our world is shattered. With the second, we make a first attempt to reinstate safety by designating an enemy, going after it, and hoping that by securing that enemy, we will be restored to safety. In the short run this may be true. However, as a psychologist called in to help heal people's shattered psyches, their ruptured lives, it is my responsibility to perceive at once both short-term and long-term goals.

People's immediate suffering and grief is massive. They need relief. They need to resume their lives and responsibilities. They need to feel better to take on the larger task of examining their own consciousness and of asking the harder questions: Is the enemy also within? Has our ignorance of our collective role in the world, our narrowness of purpose, our blindness to others' needs gone unexamined? Then, to what extent does this crisis call on me as a psychologist to be more mindful of my own consciousness and of my responsibility, not only to help people function better in their (former) consciousness; that is, restored to their old sense of security, but also in the process of healing, to help people change their consciousness in order to change the world and their role in it? (These longer term questions will be explored in Part Two next month.)

Soul Murder and the Effects of Violence

The violence of the attack stunned and muted us. Hannah Arendt said: "Only sheer violence is mute." Violence assumes there is no one to listen. It is predicated on the conviction that the "other" lacks the capacity to "hear" or is not an "other" at all, but merely an "it." Born of soul murder, terrorism is itself a form of soul murder. It is defined by the terrorist's refusal to acknowledge that the other has a soul or, if acknowledged, by the illusion that the other's soul is either inferior to his own or so corrupted by evil of whatever nature (materialist, infidel, mercenary, etc.) that murder, annihilation, abuse or exploitation is justifiable.

The Bible designates soul murder as the one sin for which there is no forgiveness. The playwright Ibsen speaks of soul murder as "killing the love-life in a human soul." (Paulson, transl. p. 334) The victim loses his desire to live and reason for living. Moreover, if he continues life with a murdered soul, he will likely murder the souls of others. If I am in the power of such a person, one who is indifferent to whether I live or die, indifferent to my welfare, happiness and growth, I will feel terror and isolation.

I may also feel intense sadness, depression, a loss of identity and life force, rage. I may avoid persons and activities I used to love, be unable to concentrate because so preoccupied with danger, suffer intense anxiety, panic, paranoia, diminished desire and ability to communicate, sleeplessness, nightmares. As a reaction to these symptoms, I may feel frustrated about not progressing toward the achievement of my goals and dreams, guilty about my inability to overcome my situation or to do anything to help others whose lot I realize is worse than my own. I may experience helplessness, irrational irritability, confusion, paralysis, apathy, physical deterioration, resume former addictions, abuse medications, have suicidal or homicidal thoughts and act on them. Without help in understanding the process one must go through to reverse the feelings and symptoms of terror and loss, I am likely to stay stuck in these feelings, keep reliving them, and not recover.

Restoring the Murdered Soul

In the Eskimo culture, an angakok (evil spirit) could rob a person of his soul, causing him to wither away and die. The only hope was for another angakok help him get his soul back. Angakoks in the Eskimo culture were usually the best poets, experienced first in the composition of words and second in getting into a state of trance and coming out of it with inspiration. They brought back from this realm songs and words, carrying the wisdom from their trance states. This cured the muteness of terror and reversed the self-destruction and soul murder that come from contact with 'evil.'

It could be said that the day the World Trade Center was attacked an angakok entered the collective soul of the American people, shattering our peace of mind and replacing it with the symptoms just described. Companies realized--many perhaps for the first time--that attending to their employees' mental health was not a luxury, that if they didn't address quickly whatever stigma was connected to having symptoms associated with 'mental illness' or the inability to 'pull oneself up by the bootstraps,' they would face a huge loss in productivity.

The Challenge for Counselors

It was critical that people realize they needed help, needed to tell their stories, and know that they would be listened and responded to by a receptive consciousness that could raise them to a new level of tranquility and understanding. This was challenging for mental health workers because they too were dealing with an unprecedented crisis and feeling its traumatic effects themselves. As healers, we had to process our own experience, draw on past experience with trauma and crisis intervention, understand how for many people the present trauma reactivated former traumas, and simultaneously respond to the unique demands of the situation.

Efforts to create a zone of peace in which healing can optimally take place were hampered by the threat of new acts of terror, of war, and by uncertainty about the safety of basic aspects of everyday life: the subways and other forms of transportation, high-rise buildings, the air we breathe, our water supply. One couldn't assure people things were now okay or it was over. As mental health workers themselves trembled in their own anxiety, uncertainty and shaky theories, they attempted to listen and heal, to help people find words for their experiences, their sense of victimization, horror, aloneness, confusion, and terror, and so slowly break through the 'muteness' of violence and its aftermath and shortstop the reverberations of soul murder and wounds to the soul. (This includes helping alleviate the symptoms enumerated above that can lead to destructive impulses towards oneself or others.)

The Human Resource Preserved

Once people begin speaking, others open their hearts to them. New connections are made, new communities begun. Portrayed here are people whose psyches and lives were affected by sharing with me some of their words and stories, and who, in turn, affected mine.

Just hours after the World Trade Center was hit, I received calls from the EAP programs of two companies with offices there requesting that I help counsel employees returning to work and help managers help them deal with the fact that some of their colleagues were missing and with the traumatic symptoms that were a result of personal losses or of witnessing the event first hand.

I had set aside mornings for writing, so had no appointments, and agreed to come in the next morning. When I arrived, coffee was made, and platters of muffins and bagels set out for employees. I was met by a grieving young man from Human Resources, his eyes red-rimmed from crying. Several employees were unaccounted for and he was concerned about those who might come to work still in the throes of grief or shock. He introduced me to his boss, a psychiatrist, and we organized a plan for the next few days. I recommended that opportunities be created for individual counseling sessions and for group sessions for employees and for managers. I was also asked to make calls to some employees or their relatives who company officials suspected might be too devastated to seek help.

Regaining Voice in Isolation

The first person I called was a manager who had been at the WTC on September 11. A Vietnam veteran, he told me that what he saw that day was more horrifying than anything he had seen in Vietnam: the building on fire, people jumping out of windows, everything shaking, the black smoke, a feeling that every direction held the same horror and there was no escape. He had been on the tenth floor, evacuating his staff, when the second plane hit the building. He told his people to meet him on John Street. Only six of fourteen showed up. Unable to stop thinking about the missing, he was not sleeping, eating or leaving the house. It had taken him three years to get over Vietnam. Now all those images were coming back. He couldn't stop them, and he couldn't stand feeling so out of control--again.

Another manager on my call list was also staying home, profoundly shaken by what he had witnessed and by the realization that missing co-workers might not have made it out. He had watched as the first tower was devastated and, as the smoke infiltrated his office, ordered all of his workers out of the building. One of them, Frank, had said he would just retrieve back-up tapes, look for his friend, then leave. The manager was very concerned because when he reached the 78th floor sky lobby, there was no sign of Frank; the nicest guy, the kind of guy who would stay and help, who wouldn't feel right leaving if he knew others needed help getting out.

The next person I called was Frank's 13-year-old daughter. Human Resources said Frank's wife was not answering the phone, and they were very concerned about the daughter and the 11-year-old son. Her voice sweet and cheerful when she answered the phone, I asked her how she was doing. "Fine," she said. "I know my father is safe in the hospital. I know we will find him and he will come home." 'Shock and denial, the first stages of loss and grief,' I thought, feeling my heart sink, knowing what is ahead for this child, unless there is a miracle: confusion, disbelief, self-blame, depression, anger, hopefully at some point acceptance, but in any case a lifetime lived in relation to a lost parent and this tragedy. I gave her my phone number and told her she could call me anytime.

Salting Away the Tears

After the phone calls, I am given a list of employees who have requested to speak to a counselor. The first is a slim, young Hispanic man. He tells me that when he walked into his midtown office and saw on TV the towers engulfed in smoke, he thought it was a movie. Then, he says, he started feeling sad, felt like crying. He was confused by the sudden switch in his mind from movie to reality, and the rush of strong feelings that accompanied it.

'It has been an equalizing of everyone'

I thought of these hijackers, passing through all these checkpoints at the airport and I blamed God for not offering a sign. He didn't even alert someone at an airport to feel suspicious. That morning it felt like God blocked everyone from expecting something. I could sense a numbness. I'm very sensitive. I sensed this was leading up to something. Maybe God wanted us not always thinking of ourselves as superior to others. It has been an equalizing of everyone. There's only so much we can understand, you know, like, why some things have to happen to make other things happen. Afterward, everyone started working together. There was a harmony. But then my soul hurt for all those people who died. I dealt with this hurt with anger. Then I began feeling that what happened was unnecessary. But it's entered my psyche. I'm alive and they're dead, but I am living with their death and something has died in me. Sometimes I think, 'Why did they get to die? Now they don't have to live with this pain, this confusion.' That's a terrible thought. You must think I'm crazy or suicidal or something.

"No, not at all," I say. "Something this big, you have to stretch your idea of God, or it's just too hard to go on. I'm very interested in how you're trying to make sense of this. Tell me more."

Them Becomes Me

Next, a 23-year-old student tells me he was at school at Manhattan Community College when he heard the plane crash, the screams. The teacher was still teaching and students were still asking questions, when a faculty person came in and said, "Be calm."

We got up and out the window could see the WTC had been hit. We saw fire, and people jumping out of the building. There were people waving white shirts and people running for their lives. Now sometimes I feel really sad, feel like crying. I could picture a floor of the WTC, like one of the floors here, full of people. I could imagine all the people there, like my friends here. It stayed in my mind. I can't sleep. I heard screams and still hear screams. I pictured the people falling out the window, saw them as people I knew. The day after I was so scared to come into this building. I looked up and could imagine a plane hitting it right where I work. All the security people in the lobby now checking ID's remind me that it is an ongoing possibility.

Compromise and Regret

A well-preserved Spanish woman, about 40, comes in next.

I don't sleep. I worked at Houston and Sixth. I saw the building falling down. I immediately started crying. I saw people come walking up Sixth Avenue, so calm and peaceful, walking in unison, all together. It was in a way so beautiful. I live by myself. I'm separated. It was the scariest thing that happened in my whole life. I'm separated from my boyfriend, but now I want him back. He was violent and chauvinistic, but being alone feels worse than putting up with him right now. I really don't know which is worse.

And then a petite, young black girl in her early 20's walks in. Her eyes are red and she can barely get words out.

My best friend worked on the 107th floor in accounting at Windows, the restaurant. I haven't seen her in five years. We went to Manhattan Community College together. She helped me finish, made me go to classes. I feel terrible that I haven't seen her for so long. I was mad at her for something stupid. I don't even remember. Now I have to live with myself, with not forgiving her, not seeing her. There was so much more to love her for, than what I didn't talk to her for. But I didn't talk to her for five years. Why?

Hope at Risk

The next day, Frank's wife calls, asking if I will see her and the two children. They come in later that afternoon and sit, all three in a row, on my long blue velvet couch. Maria, a petite, once beautiful woman from South America, is now looking tired, pained, older than her 45 years. Eleven-year-old Tommy is tall, swarthy, quiet, and unexpressive. Sonia has long black hair and black eyes brimming with energy and love of life. She is the first to speak, the self-designated caretaker and holder of hope.

She talks confidently of how she knows her father is either in a hospital or buried under the rubble in an air pocket waiting to be rescued. She has called his beeper and it rang, so she knows he must have dropped it or that he is lying in a hospital unconscious. The next day they are going to put up posters, call all the hospitals. Sonia says her father was everything to her, her life. He gave her everything she wanted, spoiled her, helped her with homework, cooked dinner every night, believed in her. Then her sunny face darkens and tears roll down her cheeks. "If anything happened to him, my life is ruined. But I'm calling everywhere. I know he's somewhere."

In the Zone of Emotional Danger

Tommy's face is impassive. I ask him how he's feeling. He looks at his sister and nods. "Like she does." His Machismo character is firmly in place: a present blessing, but long-term danger. Maria is doing her best to appear like she is supporting her children's optimism and hope, but crumbling inside with the chaotic crosscurrents of terror, sorrow, uncertainty, and responsibility, facing an unknown and inconceivable life ahead. "And you?" I ask gently, wanting to inquire with the fewest words and suggestion, so she can share what she wants and is able to.

"I work across the street, when it happen," she begins, in broken, accented English. She goes on to describe her own ordeal, the evacuation of her building directly across the street from the WTC, her terror as she made her way through the blackness and smoke, thinking all the time of her husband working on one of the high floors and wondering whether he got out. As she began to see through the thick cloud of debris, she scanned the face of every man running for his life to see whether he was her husband. Around her, people were tripping, victims of debris, falling objects, wounds, exhaustion, panic and confusion. Part of her wanted to turn back and look for him, but she knew she had to survive for her children, particularly if anything happened to him. She kept going. Sitting on my couch now, she tells me, as much sorrow as she feels over her missing husband, she is grateful that she's still there for her children. She knows families, she says, in which young children now have no one: both parents victims.

Sonia and Tommy sit quietly as their mother speaks, staring down at their laps, not wanting to see her tears, hear her fear or pain. They can't tolerate her being weak at this point, in need, when they need so much, can't bear the emotions that might be connected to a reality of which they cannot yet conceive.

[Next month, in Part Two of this article, several of the grieving introduced here reappear. Eds.] (A poet and clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst, Elaine Schwager contributes frequently to the magazine.)

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