Grief Counseling Families of WTC Victims
The Immediate Impact of Terror and Loss: Breakdown and Breakthrough
(Part Two of Two)
by Elaine Schwager, Ph.D.
[In Part One, appearing in the Dec'01 issue, the author addresses the deep divisions in world consciousness, "soul murder," the psychic effects of violence, the rationalization of evil, neglectful gods, and captures the first-phase hopes and regrets of survivors. A special family, met there, returns here. Eds.]
Is my cure, if cure there be
With the first day of individual counseling completed, we have set up two group sessions for the next day: one for the employees and another for the managers. A company email goes out, inviting to the sessions anyone who feels he needs support, counseling or help dealing with what he is going through over the WTC crisis.
The large room designated for the employee session fills slowly, but by ten minutes past the appointed hour, it is packed with about fifty people. Faces from every ethnic and racial group are represented. People who likely had never sought professional help or counseling before, in fact had contempt for it, and had had contempt for themselves when they thought they might need such a thing, are here. I feel the raw intensity in the room. I know before anyone speaks the scope of feelings that are being brought here.
I am here as a professional, but they know I am one of them, spinning from the impact of the same tragedy. I scan their faces and realize I must begin, must take on the leadership of this community assembled before me. I have twenty-five years of experience doing individual therapy, analysis, grief work, and counseling with families, couples and groups. I have grappled for decades with the legacy of Holocaust trauma and loss in my own family. But I have never done this.
I will have to grope, using the bare guidelines of my professional training, help people talk and share their experience, let them feel they're not alone, help them understand the 'normality' of their symptoms, give them some sense of how long their painful symptoms and suffering might last, what they might expect in the future and the stages of grief, trauma and stress they will go through, give them suggestions for further support, counseling, ways of understanding and seeing what they've been through--and hope. When the two hours are up, each one needs to leave feeling less stress, less alone, relieved of some of the isolation and terror he has brought in with him.
I suggest that anyone who wants to can share what he's experienced in the past 48 hours, while those who just want to listen may do so. I say, "The worst thing is to be alone in what one felt and experienced, to go through something painful and horrible and feel no one knows about it, cares or understands what impact it's had on you." The room is silent for only a few seconds before one young woman begins tearfully. "He saved my life. I wouldn't be here now if not for Ronnie." Seated beside her, Ronnie breaks down.
The two of them sob before they can say another word. The room is hushed and expectant. Tammy, the young woman, resumes:
We were up in our office on the eightieth floor when the other building got hit. Everyone was scrambling, making phone calls, not knowing whether to stay or go. There were all kinds of mixed messages: 'Get out.' 'Stay put; it's worse outside, debris everywhere.' Ronnie said, "We're getting out of here." He organized the whole office. I was frozen. I didn't know what to do. He grabbed me and we started down the stairs, running, running. I was getting exhausted, my feet hurt. The Port Authority announced through the speakers everyone go back to their office. He said, "No, we're getting out." Then a minute later our building was hit. You could feel everything shake. The staircases were jammed. He kept pulling me, telling me I could make it. I wanted to stop. I know I would have given up.
Ronnie can't stop sobbing. A big man, he looks like he never cries and is frightened of his own tears, of how unlike himself he feels. He takes a breath.
You can't imagine. I thought of my babies at home. I had to live for them. When those people on the loudspeaker said go back, something in me said 'no' and kept going. I told everyone around me not to listen, to get out. People were going in two directions. I took over, told everyone going up, to turn around. I would have gotten Tammy out if I had to carry her on my back. But Frank...(breaks down again), he wasn't out there when we got out. He was the kind of guy who would go back to help. Everyone loved him.
Several people in the room are nodding. "You're a hero, Ron!" someone yells from the back. And a couple of people nearby put their arms around him as he keeps sobbing. Once the room quiets a bit, I look around for others who want to speak. An older man in the back shyly raises his hand.
I had something of the same experience Ron had. We were on the fortieth floor, right across the street. When the building fell, it shattered our windows and black smoke came into our office. I told everyone to go to the bathroom and put wet towels over their face and got fifty people down forty flights through the black smoke. I don't know what came over me. I'm not usually the leader type, but someone had to take over and something inside said that it was me.
The room was gathering energy and cohesion. More and more people wanted to air their experiences and feelings.
Yeah. I stopped at the post office to get stamps. Otherwise I'd be dead.
I just went out to get a cigarette, just standing there, when I looked up and the building was on fire, smoke all around and things falling on people. I can't go near tall buildings. The sound of planes terrifies me.
I haven't been able to sleep in two days. Images of what happened keep going through my mind. As I was running, a SnappleŽ bottle shattered in front me. I think forever, when I see SnappleŽ in a store, the whole thing will come back and I'll just keep reliving it.
My aunt was found under a car, dead. She hid there to find shelter and was crushed. My cousin hasn't been heard from. She got two little girls, who don't understand why their mama ain't coming home. I've become their mom. And another cousin was a janitor on the ground floor. It's too much.
I'm scared all the time now. It's not like me. They changed me. I don't want to be this dude who is looking over his shoulders all this time, who don't trust people, checks out everyone who looks like those terrorists. I'm pissed at those fuckers for changing me. I don't want to be a scared person. It's not me. I can't help it though. I hate it.
My friend told me there were Arabs in Brooklyn celebrating. One guy punched out this guy. I know it's wrong, but I'm so angry about what happened, if I heard someone laughing I don't think I could hold back. I'd want to kill them.
My five-year-old asked me if the guys who hit the buildings with planes did it on purpose or if it was an accident. I hesitated, not knowing what to say. I realized I had to tell him the truth. We have always been honest with him and he has lived his whole life with no one ever trying to willfully hurt him. I looked him in the eyes and said, 'Yes, they did it on purpose.' He looked at me with a disbelief and horror I had never seen in his little face, as if at that moment he was first grappling with the notion of evil.
I've felt scared and somewhat paranoid my whole life. Now I feel the same way but I have real reason to. I'm not alone. It made me remember the war, Vietnam, and before that my Dad always criticizing me and beating me. For the first time I cried for those things. I never cried for them before. This brought it all back, the pain back then of being beaten and scared and not being able to do anything about it.
I'm pissed at the American government. We're being punished for what they been doing for years to other people, exploiting them, waging our own terrorism in the name of freedom.
I was listening to my pastor pray for the souls of those who died and speak of these guys driving the plane as 'evil.' I didn't understand. I was in church. Why didn't he pray for their souls as well?
The group sharing wasn't what one individual had expected:
This is upsetting me more than it's helping. I want answers. I want to know why I can't eat and am afraid to go out my door and get on a subway and how long it's going to last and what to do about it. Not just to hear everyone else's pain and horror story.
"It helps me to know what everyone here has been through." "Yeah," someone agreed. "Me too," another added. "When will we meet again?"
What was most curative in this group was people sharing their stories. Honest, heartfelt talk is an antidote to violence of the self and others. It forms community. I did little more than facilitate this, at times offering concrete suggestions or explanations to help people understand what they were feeling.
All around the city mental health professionals were facilitating such sharing for companies, for people who had lost loved ones, for each other, as they carried home each night the images and words, held the pain and sorrow of all the people they had listened to. Many of us felt privileged to do this work, to witness the courage and struggle of the human spirit to regain dignity and strength.
There was a strange paradox at work in this "holy war" directed against us 'infidels' in the name of God. Though we need to reflect on our relation to these people historically, the incident brings out the complexity of things. There is God (good) on both sides and ignorance on both sides. In the groups done all over the city, many therapists felt some spirit take over, in all of us, all of us infidels the attackers wanted to wipe off the planet.
As therapists we look for ways to allow this process to take place, removing obstacles, opening doors, breaking through walls if necessary, until this force acquires momentum and begins to restore things to a recognizable balance. It is painful to consider what great terror it took to move that spirit, what loss of life and livelihood, buildings, money, the love of parents, children, siblings.
Religion is the mother who receives her children with loving arms when they flee to her terrified by the confusion and the "merciless tumult of nature stripped of its gods," and driven to despair by the shattering enigma of existence.--C.G. Jung, The Zofingia Lectures (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1983 p. 71)
Religion is what we turn to when religion fails and the old gods let us down. Religion is what we turn to when the new religion fails and its gods let us down. It is that continual turning perhaps, each appeal fueled by fresh hope and the faith that when one thing fails or is lost there can be something greater which we meet in ourselves or in the world, that lifts us a little above where we've been.
Throughout, we acknowledge that the 'god' or 'reality' we think we know is never the whole of either. We build our world on glimpses, and even these are not glimpses of the whole, but rather, only of the partially revealed. The opposite conviction--of certainty--creates the fundamentalism that leads to designating oneself as holy or blessed and the other as 'evil'--and inevitably to violence. Our doubt that we have obtained the 'whole' (holy) answer is what leads us to want to learn more and talk more.
Once the employee session ends, the room fills again, with the managers, older men and woman with notebooks and pens. Some had been in the meeting just before, but now they are here for a different reason, to help the employees, whose productivity they're responsible for, resume work where possible and to know when some have legitimate reasons not to. There are many questions about what to look for, what to say, how to know when someone needs help or needs to talk.
Apart from identifying the most typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress and grief, my message to the managers is simple: The more you care about what your people are going though and give them what they ask for in terms of time off, reduced work, a welcoming, supportive environment and community, the more quickly they are likely to want to return to work. I tell them to bring themselves into things as a peer, not just as an authority, to let their employees know what they're going through as well, allow for lunch meetings to share human issues, not just business issues. Why isn't this basic business practice always? Once it's set in motion, maybe it will be.
Frank's Survivors: Maria, Tommy and Sonia
A week later, I again see the family of Frank, the man whose self-sacrifice has taken on near legendary status in the company. Maria, sadder, begins to talk about practical issues, how to deal with the Red Cross, get a new job, find out about her husband's insurance, turn away reporters and news people who want to talk to her. Sonia and Tommy still believe their father is alive and are convinced they will find him. Today, each family member wants to meet with me separately.
Maria is concerned about her daughter who won't let her touch anything of her father's, do his laundry, move his toothbrush. Sonia wants everything as it was, for when he comes back. She smells his shirt, his wallet, inhales him to feel close to him. "What should I do?" Maria asks me.
"Do as she says. For now. Somewhere in her mind she is beginning to consider the possibility that he may not come back, but for now her hope is helping her keep going, helping her keep away too much pain so she can begin to imagine life without him. Once there is certainty he has died, we will help her face it and mourn."
Maria's eyes fill with tears. I see that the word 'died' hit hard. It has not been used before, only 'missing.' No one in the family has yet allowed that word to be spoken. My utterance of it has let in its possibility. "And Tommy," she went on, "he don't talk to no one. Always by himself. He acts like it don't matter, but I know it does. His teacher say, that he only say everything okay and he's waiting for his father. He want to be strong and take care of me and Sonia. He thinks that what he should do."
"I'll talk to him. He needs to know whatever he feels is okay and things don't have to go on as normal now. And you Maria, how are you doing being the only one now to take care of your children?"
She tells me that in the midst of her sorrow and fear she is grateful that she is here to take care of her children, reminding me of how close she came to being a victim herself. I feel great admiration for Maria, and privileged to be a witness to the struggle of her strong and gentle soul grappling with this huge tragedy. I tell her of my admiration for her courage, but hope something more comes through to her that I can't quite say: my appreciation for what she gives me.
Sonia speaks to me first about the last night she saw her father before he disappeared. She says they had a fight about her homework. She was so mad that he didn't help her as he usually does that she didn't speak to him the rest of the night. Then the next morning, when he went to work, something told her to kiss him good-bye even though she was still mad and didn't want to. She is afraid that wherever he is, it is what he remembers of her: that fight and anger. "It was not how it usually was with us," she says. "He always helped me. He would do anything for me."
Sonia says she hasn't told anybody about these feelings and has been worrying about this for days. It is all she can think of. I thank her for sharing that with me, and tell her of all the wonderful stories I have been hearing about her father from people who worked with him and knew him. I say that wherever her father is he remembers the kiss, not the anger. From all she and everyone else has said, that was who he was and he would be so proud of her for thinking of him as someone who would hold on to that kiss, not the anger. Sonia takes a deep breath and nods. She says she's glad she's told me about that and feels better.
Tommy comes in, looking more sullen than impassive. He tells me he is trying to be strong for his mother and hates when she cries.
"You need your mother to take care of you too, and it's hard to see her so sad."
He nods and there's a long pause. He fidgets, looks at me, looks away. I ask him if there is something else he wants to talk to me about. After another hesitation, he tells me.
On the morning of 9/11, his father Frank walked him to the bus stop. The new term had just begun. His father had always accompanied him to school and offered to continue as usual that day, but Tommy assured him it was all right, that he was ready, at age 11, to handle getting there on his own. So, they parted there, and Frank went on to work. As Tommy tells me this, his stoic stance breaks and he weeps. "It's my fault," he says. "If only I had let my father take me, he'd be with us now. It's all my fault."
"What can be your fault? You have nothing to do with the people who flew the planes, or the people who made them fly the planes, or all the problems in the world that contributed to this happening. Wherever your Dad is, he must be so proud of you, Tommy, for how you're growing up and choosing to go to school by yourself. He has prepared you to be independent his whole life. I'm sure he left you that morning feeling good about you and himself, for what a fine young man you are becoming."
Tommy's face brightens. But he looks like there is more. I ask. He says there is a test the next day in school and he has been so worried he hasn't been able to study for it. I tell him that what is most important now is to pay attention to his feelings and let himself take whatever time he needs for them. "I'm going to write your teacher a letter, telling her what you are dealing with and ask her to give you a make-up next week. Will that help?" Tommy nods gratefully.
I write the letter on my stationery, put it in an envelope and hand it to him. The concreteness of it seems important to Tommy, an official document giving himself permission to get a bit derailed from the responsibilities of school life. He is relieved of the feeling that he has to keep it together. As he walks out of the office I see for the first time a barely perceptible smile on his face.
A child needs to move at his own pace; he needs to feel the continuity of the parent in his life even though the father or mother is not physically present. A loss at a young age sets the course for the rest of a child's life. Everything is lived in relation to the loss. His life becomes an attempt to make up for it, not be reminded of it, fulfill the dreams of the parent, and be what he thinks the parent wanted him to be. In this way it is sometimes more difficult to separate from a lost or deceased parent than from a living one. This makes grief and mourning essential in young lives, though extremely difficult.
Grief work is at bottom spiritual and an essential growth process in life. We rarely choose to do it. It is thrust upon us by things beyond our control. If we don't take it on, we die with the dead. While loss of those we loved and needed remains for most an ever-present sorrow, if we don't take on the lessons of grief, we betray those we love more than if we forgot them. Grief involves learning essential life lessons: we all will die; everything is transitory; we don't have as much control as we think do. Many of our sources of safety in the material world are illusion; learning to give up a source of happiness and joy external to us is painful but can be a means of growth, strength and renewed joy in our inner capacity to reconnect to life in creative, previously unimagined ways.
Grieving is a struggle for liberation from suffering and dependence, difficult, strenuous, at times seemingly impossible, painful, drawing on our creative and spiritual strength in a way that nothing else does. Paradoxically and regretfully, we wish we didn't have to pay the price to learn its lessons, but the price is what forces us to take it on. Grieving is universal and so connects us with others in the world in a new and deeper way. It chooses us. It challenges us.
Sometimes it chooses us too young and wrecks innocence still needed, or too old, when frailty cannot withstand the process, or in the midst of us clinging to illusions and loves we feel are indispensable to our sense of self and survival and cannot release ourselves from without shattering. And then the process must be postponed or avoided. But when we can take it on, we are given an opportunity to learn to live life with a new consciousness and connection to ourselves and the rest of mankind.
Edna St. Vincent Millay speaks of the two sides of grief in these poetry excerpts:
I will control myself, or go inside.
The first speaks of a grief we want to avoid, because in the short run it makes us suffer to go through it and removes us from the everyday joys; the second, of a grief we need to let nourish us to be cured and to grow beyond our victimization, sorrow and bitterness.
Grieving helps rid the self of our inner persecutors and deserters, those who--deliberately or unwittingly--hurt and terrorize us, helps us find forgiveness for their ignorance, understanding for their limitations. It helps preserve the best of the other in ourselves through remembering and speaking of the other's goodness and how they loved.
Grieving helps to free us from continuing to project those inner demons onto others and so keep dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. We realize that, whatever was done to us, we need to claim at least some part of the shadow cast over our soul as our own, if we are to avoid sending it back into the world as violence, terror or muteness, thereby perpetuating the cycles of soul murder, soul shattering, and soul wounding.
(A poet and psychologist/psychoanalyst, Elaine Schwager is a regular contributor to the magazine.)