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Why Memorialize Disasters?

The good and bad in trauma memorials and anniversaries.

Physical Memorials to Disasters

Anniversary remembrances are one thing. Permanent memorials are another.

"It is built into our DNA to create these memorials. After all, we build graves for our dead," Marmar says. But he's quick to add that the type of memorial is important.

In the case of the 9/11 memorial, he says, part of the monument will be a sacred place in which the remains of many of the dead -- now stored at NYU -- will be permanently laid to rest.

Another part of the memorial will be a museum. This part is intended for future generations, Remmler says.

"My work on the Holocaust shows that once a memorial is created, it moves from having an emotional impact to having more of an educational impact," she says. "Part of the memorialization is not just to go through mourning and remembering. Those not present at the event, or born afterward, can learn from the event. It becomes meaningful for them, too."

Not all memorials are huge public monuments. Drive along any highway and you're likely to see crosses or floral arrangements commemorating private tragedies.

Manevitz says these small monuments can help people recover from such losses.

"In personal tragedy, your sense of safety is shattered," he says. "You feel powerless and unlinked from everyone else. And out of that you feel helpless, or angry, or want to run away and hide. Personal markers are a way of empowering that moment."

Although there's little research in the area, Marmar notes that the maintenance of personal memorials can go too far.

"For some, it is a sign of healing; for others it is a sign of arrested grief," he warns.

How can you tell the difference?

"In general, a sign of healthy grief is you can confront the reminders without being overwhelmed, and you can set them aside without feeling guilty. It is a flexible grief," Marmar says. "As a survivor, I can think about it without being overwhelmed. I focus on the present without being constantly reminded of the trauma. And I have enough sense of security to know the next disaster isn't lurking around the corner."

Reviewed on September 01, 2011

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