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.

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.

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.

A Slate study done by writer Meghan O’Rourke and psychologist Leeat Granek found that only 7 percent of the 8,000 people surveyed said that they felt skillfully supported by friends, family, and colleagues as they grieved. Ms. O’Rourke and Ms. Granek write, “The most surprising aspect of the results is how basic the expressed needs were, and yet how profoundly unmet many of these needs went.” In that sense, anniversaries like the one we recognize this September 11 are a way to do the profound and necessary work of acknowledging loss.

For those who didn’t lose someone directly, but felt that the nation changed, September 11th rolls around each year and offers a moment to take stock of what has become of us as a result of that fateful day.

Just as I dipped in and out of the footage looking for insights about how we were healed and changed by the events of 9/11, an anniversary like this is a moment for the public at-large to “dip in” to our own collective consciousness and ask ourselves profound and necessary questions: Who are we, as a nation, 10 years later? Are we proud of the ways in which we have responded to the violence we endured? What did we learn that day that we have forgotten? How can we excavate the best of what we’ve let get buried?

As Pulitzer Prize winning writer Gail Caldwell beautifully put it, “We never get over great losses, we absorb them.” That absorption, it seems to me, takes years of diving down into the muck of our memories and our melancholy, and then swimming back to the surface for some sunshine. There is nothing phony or neglectful about the fits and starts of public memorialization. It reflects the most natural and complex elements of our psychic resilience.

In order to heal – both privately and publicly – we have to give ourselves permission to both forget and remember.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of the new book, “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors," as well as Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," and coeditor of the anthology “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also an editor at feministing.com. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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