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9/11 anniversary: Why remembering in fits and starts is OK

Working on a book about 9/11 survivors, I found I could only immerse myself in interview footage in fits and starts, much as our nation remembers September 11. That's how mourning – public and private – works. To heal, we have to let ourselves both forget and remember.

By Courtney E. Martin / September 9, 2011

New York

I sit in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, my headphones on, staring at my computer screen as a woman in her mid-30s tells the story of September 11, 2001, tears unceasing, hands wringing. Her face is framed against a sea of black. Her story is devastating.

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This is the kind of footage I’ve been immersed in for the last two years as I worked on a book titled “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors.“ The book coincides with a documentary film in which all of the featured survivors were interviewed every year on the anniversary of September 11th. As you can imagine, this amounts to a lot of footage – much of which I’ve watched in very deliberate fits and starts.

Why fits and starts? Because, to my mind, there is simply no other way to healthily process so much sadness, so much grief, so much raw humanity. I would often watch a few hours of footage of Tanya, described above, reflecting on the loss of her firefighter fiancé Sergio, and then take a long lunch, sitting in Bryant Park, watching the chess players and tourists in order to remind myself that there is play and discovery alongside loss and death.

My pattern of immersing myself and then taking breaks from the footage, it turns out, mirrors the experience of grief itself, according to current psychological theory. Recent research indicates that grief is most often ridden like a roller coaster – up and down and all around – rather than in consecutive stages as was previously thought. Dr. George Bonnano, author of “The Other Side of Sadness,” argues that those who are mourning experience moments of acute sadness alongside moments of relief, gratitude, and even laughter. It’s all part of the process, Bonnano explains.

It seems to me that our interpersonal experience of grief should be a model for our public commemoration of it. Just as we dip in and out of sadness as mourning individuals, we dip in and out of reflection as a mourning nation. Designating days on which we reflect, honor, and imagine a way forward is a natural way of collective healing.

Too often, anniversaries like these are used to bludgeon good people with guilt. The critics say: How can we possibly think of 9/11 only once a year? Are we so self-focused and neglectful as to have let the victims of that day fade from our memories 364 other days? How phony is a circumscribed anniversary anyway?

But the truth is that anniversaries are much-needed public rituals for people to dive back into their private grief in a way that is socially supported. For those who lost someone directly during the attacks of 9/11, these annual days of sanctioned remembrance are an honoring of those lost, but also an affirmation of the continuing process for those who were left behind.


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