By: Michelle Palmer, LICSW, Wendt Center Executive Director
Twenty years later, ‘Never Forget’, the mantra that rose during the horrific days of 9/11, still echoes in the lives of every American—including children who were too young to remember or unborn. But why should we remember, and how should we commemorate one of the worst days in American history?
On September 11, 2001 and days following, Wendt Center crisis responders were at the Pentagon providing psychological first aid to first responders; supporting families at the Family Support Center in Arlington, VA, and working with the Red Cross. We will never forget the ravaging impact of this day. Twenty years later, our lives have changed individually and collectively, and today, many survivors, bereaved families and individuals continue to experience the rippling effects of grief and trauma.
For thousands of children who lost a parent, the last 20 years meant missing someone they barely knew. Former New York City firefighters continue to die of 9/11-related illnesses, and those alive are still facing the trauma of this gruesome day. As a nation, 9/11 changed this country forever—it was the day that grief was not isolated, nothing felt secure and no place felt safe, and everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, culture, race was impacted. This is collective grief.
Grief affects us all on different scales. When a crisis of any nature is inflicted upon a community, it impacts not only the individual but the community as a whole. Mourning and grieving publicly allows us all the rare opportunity to reaffirm our ties to one another. Painful and difficult moments help us to gain a new understanding and cultivate a unified way of healing. There is healing power in solidarity.
Rituals commemorating a national crisis help us acknowledge the reality of the deaths which occurred, maintain connection with or cherish the memory of our loved ones, and provide an opportunity to communicate openly and honestly about the tragedy. Rituals are not limited to the immediate time after the death and can offer opportunities for remembering and healing in the months and years to come. This month, hundreds of thousands of white flags will be planted along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to memorialize the more than 600,000 people who have died from Covid-19 in the United States. What we have learned from 9/11, is that rituals help us learn to find a routine or rhythm within the loss; we learn to live in relationship with what is no longer physically present.
Finding meaning through rituals helps us regain our footing when the ground becomes unstable. As we begin to put one foot in front of the other, new meanings and orientations will naturally emerge. Our collective grief experiences have taught us that we never go back to how it was. Instead, we keep going as best we can, learn to carry the losses we have experienced and, of course, we never forget.
Wendt Center for Loss and Healing is the Greater Washington region’s premier resource for restoring hope and healthy functioning to adults, teens, and children who are coping with grief, loss, and trauma. Wendt Center Training Institute offers customized, trauma-informed workshops and certifications that equip mental health and allied professionals with skills to address grief, loss, and trauma in the communities in which they work and live.