by Alexandra Kennedy, author of The Infinite Thread: Healing Relationships Beyond Loss and Losing a Parent
Our world changed last September 11. Many Americans lost family, friends, and co-workers. New Yorkers watched their city and community go through a devastating crisis. We all lost the world as we had known it—we suddenly confronted our vulnerability in an uncertain world. These losses have been many layered, the grief complex.
The anniversary of any loss is an important time to reflect and review. Many people are surprised at the intensity of grief that surfaces in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of a loved one's death or of a traumatic event such as 9-11. Don't forget that when grief is activated it tends to bring up other losses as well. Most of us are tempted to think that we can avoid the pain of loss if we keep busy and close our hearts a little to protect ourselves. But the ungrieved losses take a toll on our hearts and deaden us. An anniversary is an opportunity to open our hearts and heal.
People will want to experience the anniversary in their own way—some may want to be alone, some may want to participate in a ceremony, some may want to be with friends and family. Do what feels right for you—don't be pressured by others to do something that you don't want to do.
Remember that the anniversary will affect you in the weeks leading up to it. I recommend that my clients create a sanctuary for grieving and use this in the weeks leading up to this date—even just ten to fifteen minutes a day (see the suggestions about creating a sanctuary on this web site). This strategy is more powerful than you would think—it has helped many people grieve without feeling overwhelmed, heal unresolved grief, and balance the grieving process with daily life.
It is natural for feelings to surface, perhaps feelings you couldn't afford to feel last year when the crisis was taking place. You may experience generalized anxiety, fears, and crying spells. You may be much more impatient than usual, with a tendency to snap at co-workers and family members. You may find that you have lost of interest in work and school and that you just cannot concentrate on basic tasks. It is common around the anniversary of a loved one's death to have increased dreams and thoughts about the deceased. These all are normal reactions to the anniversary.
You can support people you are close to by asking respectfully how they are doing, then listen. You don't have to fix their pain, just listen and be with them. Love heals when people listen. Avoid giving lots of advice. You may feel impelled to give suggestions because you feel helpless in the face of so much pain. Don't tell them they should be over it.
Tell those you care about that you love them. 9-11 showed us that we never know when we will lose a loved one. Grief therapists often observe that those who have expressed their love on a daily basis tend to heal more readily in grief. There are fewer regrets. See the suggestions on this web site on "Friends Supporting Grieving Friends".
Watch for symptoms of unresolved grief, such as chronic physical problems, fearfulness, addictions, depression, social isolation, overworking. If you are struggling with unresolved grief, seek out help—a counselor, a friend, a grief group.
For those who could not say good-bye to loved ones who died on 9-11, death need not cut you off from those you love. An inner relationship with the person who has died continues on after death. This relationship, constantly unfolding, offers powerful and mostly untapped opportunities for healing, resolution and even guidance. Imagination is the bridge. Exercises for nurturing and exploring this relationship are offered on this web site and in The Infinite Thread.
Our greatest loss is the unlived moments. Most of all, remember that 9-11 has taught us that each moment is precious, everything is impermanent. And if we are willing to let it work on us, grief serves to keep us aware of what is really important. It shows us where we have held back from life, where we have closed our hearts. Be gentle and kind to yourself and to others. Take this time to make the space in your life to heal.