How to cope with the grief of September 11

September 11, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that left parts of the United States consumed by smoke, fire, rubble and a sea of ​​sorrow. The collective loss of life after four hijacked commercial planes crashed into the World Trade Center complex in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington County, Va., And a field in Shanksville, Pa., Continues to take its toll. devastation two decades later.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died on that tragic day. And many more are living with physical and psychological scars ranging from severe to life-threatening – illnesses like cancer after exposure to toxic dust and debris from collapsed New York towers, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression. and the loss of loved ones. those, according to New York World Trade Center Health Registry.

For many who survived or lost someone in the 9/11 attacks, the anniversary brings back memories of what they experienced that day, says the bereavement psychologist. Heidi Horsley, PsyD, adjunct assistant professor of social work at Columbia University in New York, and executive director and co-founder of Open to hope, a bereavement recovery organization.

Dr Horsley has advised widows and children of firefighters who died in the New York bombings.

“Birthdays can bring people back to those early stages of mourning, which can be blind to them,” says Horsley.

If you feel a resurgence of grief as the 9/11 anniversary approaches, you’re not alone, says Horsley. “It’s very normal, and I think it’s a relief to people when they find out it’s very common.”

Here’s why she says birthdays like 9/11 can stir grief, how you can deal with it, and when you should seek professional help.

Everyday health: Why can birthdays of traumatic events like September 11 make grief worse?

Heidi Horsley: It is quite normal to have heightened grieving reactions on anniversary dates, because often birthdays like September 11 traumatize people again. On each birthday, many people have the same physical and emotional reactions they had on September 11 itself or in the weeks, months and years after the tragedy.

EH: In what ways can this grief manifest itself for people?

HH: People can experience a range of emotions, with some people more affected than others. They may experience sadness, anxiety, and anger at levels they experienced on the day of the attacks. Sometimes these emotions are more intense; sometimes they are less intense. Crying, anxiety, or nightmares can also be linked to the recurrence of grief.

And others might notice physical reactions like upset stomach, headache, and back pain, as well as symptoms of over-arousal (the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in). This could be triggered by regular daily noises such as car firecrackers, sirens, ambulances, and car alarms, which can remind the sounds of that day.

And some people react out of avoidance. Some people will avoid going to lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center attacks or New York (or other sites related to the attacks) occurred. They might not want to go to the 9/11 memorial sites. They might want to avoid media coverage because of traumatic reminders of the events, such as footage and pictures. These traumatic reminders once again bring back intrusive memories and thoughts of the 9/11 attacks, especially for someone who experienced the events in person or who has lost a loved one.

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EH: Why might mourning manifest itself in new forms several years later?

HH: It’s not uncommon for people to put their grief on hold or not deal with it on a deeper level when they first experience it because they don’t want to be totally overwhelmed by it. That may have been how some people got away with it earlier, but if the grief returns months or years later, they can suddenly feel it on a greater level. It could be triggered by birthdays or even some other loss, which may remind them of the loss they suffered on 9/11.

EH: You work directly with the families of firefighters who died on September 11. How do people feel about the upcoming 20th anniversary?

HH: The common theme I see among the bereaved families of firefighters who died on September 11 is that the days leading up to the 20th anniversary date were very difficult.

One factor that makes things so difficult for them is that 9/11 was a very public event, which means there are a lot of reminders of what happened across the media. But at the same time, it was a very personal loss for these families. This complicates their grieving experience.

Grieving family members often feel like they are under a microscope. As the anniversary date approaches, their stress increases and it is a relief for them to get past this very public event.

That said, these families are also very resilient and have continued to make sense of their loss. The community of 9/11 survivors and bereaved families is very united and close, and they have all supported each other in their grief over the past 20 years.

Although their lives have changed profoundly, they continue to honor the memory of their loved ones in a number of ways, including helping others deal with mass tragedies, working as grief therapists, and becoming firefighters to honor their fathers, husbands. and brothers who did not survive. the attacks of September 11. They choose to view the 20th anniversary of September 11 as a day of hope, healing and remembrance.

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EH: The September 11 attacks and the events that followed have garnered a lot of attention lately given the conflict in Afghanistan. How does that contribute to the grief and other emotions that people are feeling right now on the eve of the 20th anniversary of September 11?

HH: The conflict in Afghanistan and the death of 13 US servicemen in an attack on Kabul airport on Thursday August 26 are further triggers of grief for those who survived or lost someone on September 11. These events can worsen the grief response and lead to anxiety as the 9/11 anniversary approaches, including fears that another tragedy may occur on 9/11 this year as well.

EH: What advice do you have for people on how to cope with all of this grief?

HH: First of all, remember that what you are feeling is normal and you don’t deserve to be judged, criticized, or people saying, “Oh, you’re not done yet? People who lose a loved one do not “get over” the loss. They learn to live with it, and that’s something people around them need to understand.

To help you cope, I recommend using the coping skills that have worked best for you in the past. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Don’t isolate yourself. Instead, talk to supportive friends and family, and talk to a therapist if needed. Tell them about the thoughts and feelings you have around the birthday and what it brings to you. Avoid numbing your feelings with drugs and alcohol, which are inadequate coping mechanisms.
  • Limit your exposure to the news. There will be footage of the towers falling, people running, smoke and fire – all the things that happened on September 11 – played over and over again on anniversary day, which can be really disturbing. for the people. Also, be sure to limit social media, as a lot of 9/11 posts, including images you aren’t ready to see or want to see, will likely appear in your News Feed.
  • Exercise. Another important coping ability is walking or any physical activity that releases endorphins. A positive activity to consider on the anniversary of September 11 is to do a commemorative run or participate in some kind of training in honor and in memory of those who died on the day of the attacks.
  • Focus on remembering. Remember that September 11 is all about remembering. It is a day to commemorate, to pay homage to those who perished and to remind us of how far we have come since the 2001 attacks. The trauma does not happen again. See it as a day of hope to move forward.

EH: What are some things people can do or say to help their loved ones grieving 9/11?

HH: First, it’s important to remember that saying nothing on the anniversary of the loss of a loved one isn’t helpful, and is often hurtful and isolating. For people who lost someone on September 11, reaching out to and contacting these anniversary dates is very helpful. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and offer to talk with them, have lunch with them, or somehow support them that day.

Validate and acknowledge that they have lost someone. Sit back and listen to stories about the person they lost and how that person lived. The way they died is a moment in time; how they lived is really what we mean when we remember them on the 9/11 anniversary.

Support your loved one without judging their grief, and don’t try to “fix” their grief because you cannot bring back the person they lost. But you can be there to support them in their grief and hear what they have to say.

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EH: When to ask for help with bereavement?

HH: Remember, there is nothing wrong with getting professional help when you are grieving. Again, it’s normal to feel this after traumatic losses, even 20 years later. Over time we still miss the people we have lost and feel sad that we are not there, but there may be joy and hope in your life again – and asking for help. professional can help you reach this point.

I recommend that you seek help from a mental health professional if you:

  • Feeling hopeless, helpless, or like your life isn’t worth living
  • Have a substance abuse problem, such as heavy drinking and drug use
  • Feel consumed with anger
  • Feel that your relationships are affected or that you push away those close to you
  • Having trouble reconnecting with others
  • Feel like you can’t function in your career
  • Have suicidal thoughts or a plan to kill yourself


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