I was scheduled to speak today in NYC on the topic of sudden loss to a group of mental health professionals specializing in trauma and/or disaster response. The snowstorm led this presentation to be cancelled, but that doesn’t cancel our thoughts. And when you’re cooped up with your dog, why not write?
I was to talk about my experience in losing my fiancé, Pete, on September 11th, what we would call a “Big T” trauma and a rather unprecedented one, to provide insight into such an experience. As a 9/11 “survivor” and a grief mentor / advisory board member for ACCESS (Aircraft Casualty Emotional Support Services), I value the peer support model concept – training those who have endured a sudden loss to be available to those who find themselves facing a similar unimaginable pain. Those of us who have been in the dark can help shed some light.
A psychological trauma is an occurrence that is outside the typical every day human experience which would be distressing to most people. At the same time, it is not only the event that determines if something is traumatic to someone, but the individual's subjective experience of what occurred. In the last 15 years, I’ve examined myself within the scope of traumatic loss. I can clearly identify the points in which the events of September 11th left their permanent mark on me as well as how I remained protected from worse damage. It’s fascinating how we can experience complicated grief (a long-lasting form of bereavement that can relentlessly preoccupy someone’s mind) and posttraumatic growth (the ability to undergo positive personal changes resulting from the trauma and its consequences) almost simultaneously. Resiliency is a beautiful muscle.
But the bridge from suffering to strength is horribly lonely and no one should have to walk it alone. Having a guide who can tolerate your anguish because it’s familiar to them and simply be by your side is monumental. Since September 11th affected so many people and is an example of a shared trauma (collective exposure to a natural or man-made disaster), many of us were able to connect, providing real-time support. However, each of us had to find our own path and needed to move at our own pace.
For me, it was reaching out to every fiancé or significant other I could locate that lost someone that day, just to find a way to ease the surreal numbness I was experiencing in my particular situation. I started a peer support group for women who lost the person they were not yet married to. I put myself into every 9/11 support group I could find. And I threw myself into individual bereavement therapy which continues to this day.
When I insisted on my first therapy visit in October 2001 that I could not handle what had happened and that Pete was gone, demanding he tell me what I needed to do, it was this therapist who told me the truest words I would hear: “You are going to be very uncomfortable for a very long time. The one thing I know that can help is to talk.”
And so I’ve been talking…for over 15 years. No snowstorm can stop that.