Finding a way to deal with tragedies like 9/11 will lead to long-term healing

John Size
Good News

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary for victims of Sept. 11, an event that traumatized a nation and rattled the world.

In honour of the 3,000 men and women who lost their lives, and thousands more who lost their loved ones as a result, innumerable rallies, events, candlelight vigils and flag-raisings are planned for Sunday, while the media has preempted the date with countless magazine spreads, articles and television specials.

While so much exposure can seem overwhelming, it's easy to lose sight of what drives us to create commemorative ritual around tragedy in the first place.

For the same reason we hold personal memorials for friends or relatives who have died, national tragedy — whether it's 9/11, the earthquakes in Japan, or the recent massacre in Norway — forces us to come together as a collective in order to heal, honour the victims, and cope with the trauma.

"Anything that brings us together in a bonding way, it strengthens us. You do find that when people go through horrific events, if they are able to stay connected to others it just makes such a difference; it makes the day bearable," says Brock University psychology professor Kathy Belicki, whose research focuses on trauma and forgiveness.

A large part of any healing process involves talking about how you feel. Studies show that verbalizing your emotions to an empathetic listener can have enormous positive effect on both mental and physical health.

Circumstances like 9/11 memorial ceremonies, which offer people a chance to express their grief, can be an important part of that healing process — particularly when those directly affected know millions of people are there to listen and offer their support.

"One of the things about being victimized is that it makes you (feel) less than human. It makes you an object for a moment, especially if someone has done this to you, and in many ways that's worse because your sense of dignity is stripped away from you," says Belicki.

"When these commemorations honour you, it lifts you back up. I think that's part of what's going on here; it's being recognized as a worthy person, which can heal in a critical way."

Yet, as much as these events are about the victims and their families, they're also about the rest of us. A surprising element of large-scale tragedy is how it has the capacity to traumatize everyone — even those not directly involved.

Think about the way you may have been glued to the television screen when the news of 9/11 first broke, and how you felt for days or weeks afterward as you tried to process the magnitude of what had just occurred.

Belicki says her own students, hundreds of miles away from New York, were so shaken by the event, she rearranged her lesson plan to include 9/11. Their reaction was not uncommon.

"What makes trauma traumatic is that it destroys your conception of the world being safe, about the world being fair, of the world being predictable and controllable," she says.

"These things are kind of stupid ideas but we hold onto them and by believing them they help us get through her day. From time to time, the trauma of others shoves it in our face so we all become victims at that point. Our world gets deeply upset."

As awful as these feelings may be, Belicki says they serve an important evolutionary function.

"Trauma is timeless, and for good reason: the brain doesn't want you to forget this stuff because if there's anything to be learned you really, really want to learn. Things that are critical to survival get seared into the brain."

On the flip side, these memorials can be devastating if the traumatized individual is not ready to cope with his or her loss.

While Belicki suggests it's crucial to eventually face trauma in order to prevent it from turning into an anxiety disorder, the time it takes to heal varies for everyone. Sometimes a memorial can cause victims to re-experience the trauma if it's too soon for them. "The key is to do it gradually," she says.

For those who are ready to face their pain, there's a cathartic release to the candle-lighting, hand-holding, story-sharing rituals that force us to remember, and remind us of our shared humanity.

So even if you wish to commemorate in your own private way and avoid the hype surrounding the date, know that by marking the occasion you're engaging in a positive healing process - one that marks your humanity and perhaps most importantly, reminds us there's still love in the face of tragedy.

(Reuters Photo)