Sharing Grief, Shock on the WebMD Message Boards

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 12 2001 -- From homes, from offices, people all over the world are speaking out through the WebMD message boards. How could this terrorist act in New York City and Washington, D.C., have happened? Who is responsible? What can I tell my children? What can I tell myself?

Kaylee146 in Canada: I can't begin to comprehend what has happened. I'm sitting here watching the television and it's like a bad movie. My question is how do we explain this to our children so they will feel safe to sleep tonight?

AnniePenny in Utah: I can't stand to think of how many [people] are dying right now and I can't do anything to help! I feel so useless ... I live so far away from N.Y.

Summer93 in Maine: I am with you at 3:00am unable to sleep ... shocked, scared, sad, disbelieving. Boyfriend in the guard and on his way to help. Who knows what else will come in the days ahead.

Message boards and chat rooms -- the very phenomenon of the Internet -- have indeed provided people with a new sense of community, a place for acceptance and support, says Martha Haun, PhD, associate professor of communications at the University of Houston.

"In times of crisis, you rely on the people closest to you to give you hugs, give you support," Haun tells WebMD. "It's the way we humans take care of ourselves. We call those we love, we need to hear their voices just to feel better, even if they are in no direct threat."

But the Internet gives people something they can't find anywhere else, she says. "The magnitude of this crisis is so great that people need more support nationwide, worldwide. People feel if this could happen to the U.S., it could happen in London, Paris, anywhere."

Specialized message boards provide people a sense of support they can't get from others in their immediate world, says Haun. "People who get involved in message boards are more introspective. Right now, they're having an existential crisis, a crisis of values. Why did God let this happen?"

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Everyone handles grief differently, and online it's possible to connect with others -- people who feel the same sense of the crisis -- and give each other support, says Haun. "It's the same reason why Vietnam War vets, why cancer patients get together. You find people who truly understand what you're going through. I can try to understand, but I'm not exactly like you."

Venting your fears, your concerns, "is very, very therapeutic," says David Feinberg, MD, medical director of UCLA's neuropsychiatric and behavioral health services division.

"This sense of being heard, of sharing pain, makes you feel like you're not alone," he tells WebMD.

"For those of us not directly or physically affected by the tragedy, the biggest loss is our sense of safety," Feinberg says. "That's obviously been shattered. The Internet is one way people have found to cope. People want to vent, be heard."

For some, message boards offer an important safety zone, he says. "It's a great opportunity for people to share vulnerability, yet remain anonymous. You can test the waters, see if what you say is accepted. So message boards, chat rooms, provide entrance into a type of group setting that can be helpful."

However, he cautions, don't rely solely on message boards for advice. "Anyone having signs of anxiety or depression -- serious sleep or weight changes, inability to experience pleasure or a heightened startle response, inability to take care of activities of daily living -- should seek professional help," Feinberg says.

And "anyone directly affected by this tragedy should seek professional counseling," he tells WebMD.

Such tragedies have a ripple effect that extends further than might seem obvious, says Feinberg. "Maybe there's an 8-year-old girl living in Cleveland. Her father may be a firefighter. On TV they're talking about firefighters. He's been gone a few days, hasn't come home yet. She doesn't understand what's going on.

"The effects of trauma can be immense, and can drastically change way of life," says Feinberg. "Kids are very perceptive. When there's no karate practice, when mom and dad are acting different, they know things aren't right."

Go to message boards, to chat rooms, "to check in, get your bearings," then move on, Haun tells WebMD. "At some point, you need to turn outward, look beyond yourself, find ways to help like donating blood. When you get to that other-centered orientation, then you're in a healthier mode."

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A Glimpse at the Message Boards

But what about the messages themselves, as the smoke cleared and the death toll mounted? Here are just a few messages posted by WebMD users, which likely mirror thoughts around the world.

First, there was shock:

Louise92: To watch that much death, terror, and devastation is so unreal to me. I sit here in the comfort of my home and watch thousands of people die. I watch and am helpless, and I can't even give blood because of lupus and because I have had cancer. What is really ironic is I go to memory therapy today providing I can remember how to get there, yet I know I will never forget yesterday, yet I would love to.

MissyDea (in Australia): I personally feel grief-stricken, as do all Australians, for this could have happened to us.

Hopefullymom (in India): It was horrifying to watch the news and read the newspapers today. We are shell-shocked that there are human beings who can think such evil. Don't they have families, children, wives?

Younginpain: It is not only the people whose family and friends were killed or injured in these attacks who are affected, but the entire nation. We should all take a step back and look at our lives. It could have been any town in our country, and it could have been any one of us. Today was the largest attack on American soil. I don't know how many of you think this, but many people I know are feeling it is not over, that there is more to come. We have survived through many tragedies, and as a nation we will get through this as well.

Sqrocker1: I can't describe how I feel. This still doesn't feel like it is real, but I know it is. I am still waiting for word about three friends, (there could be more). I have so many memories of the years when I used to work at the WTC (World Trade Center). My boyfriend (at the time) worked, (and did before yesterday), on the floor of the commodities exchange. Come to think of it, many of my childhood friends worked there. I spent a lot of time there. I will always cherish those days. All I can do now is wait and pray. I have panic disorder, and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and they weren't doing so well before this. It is very hard for me to keep it together. God Give Us Strength.

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Signal: This is so awful. I live in D.C. Last night my son and I drove across the 14th St. bridge to see the damage to the Pentagon. It was awful. The smell of smoke was awful.

Firegub0019: Yesterday they were talking about the building that collapsed and they were saying that now we are in a recession. All of this is so overwhelming, I'm absorbing it all and not knowing where to put it or how to deal with it. It makes me want to go numb.

Louise92: I am sitting at work, feeling lost and horrified. The stories of people jumping from the buildings, the magnitude of the loss of lives and peace of mind for the American people. The incidents just kept happening. I saw the live feed of the plane crashing into the second tower. I saw the horror written on faces of everyone here. I want to crawl in a hole and cry for the world.

After shock, came anger:

AnniePenny: I think we are all victims of this ... we have been ripped of our safety.

Louise92: And somewhere in the deep recesses of my soul burns a rage I did not know I was capable of feeling. It overrules logic, my Christian faith of forgiveness, my usual rabbit personality of run, run, run and hide. I want blood, revenge, and immediate retaliation. To heck with justice.

Blasted: I can't stand it, I can't stand the pain of it all, I can't stand everyone asking for peace! The time for peace and talking peace is over! There is no peace possible in the hearts and souls of the evil people who have done this. If I hear another person say we need to pray for peace I think I will explode. Pray for the wounded, the rescue workers, the dead and the surviving families, YES, but I am not ready for peace! I want the people that did this to be held accountable for their actions! In front of the entire world!

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And many of our community members with chronic conditions counted their blessings and spoke of hope:

BirchMoon26, a lupus sufferer: Yesterday was a huge blow to the face. It reminded me that there are things worth living for. Seeing all those people volunteering, doing all they can ... people from my area were driving down there to see what they could do. It just makes you appreciate all those things we take for granted every single day.

Donna243, from the multiple sclerosis community: I'm a nurse, I'm thinking to volunteer, and go to N.Y. I want to help even it's in a small way.

kim529 from the multiple sclerosis community: I have felt all day, how dare I ever feel sorry for myself because I can't walk like everyone else, I can't stand up when I'm on the floor. What this country today has experienced today humbles us all.

HeretoHelpU: As I can't sleep either, while I lay in bed, I will pray for you all to get some rest. Take care and god bless you all (hugs).

D_laughlin: Please, if you do not have a flag, tie red/white/blue ribbons around your mailbox or a tree.

Lyrek: What I witnessed today was the most horrifying event I've ever seen, and ever hope to see. Strangely, though, I also saw one of the most beautiful events of my life as well: the selfless acts of camaraderie, heroism, and fellowship by EMS, police, firefighters, and civilians who risk, and for some, lost, their lives in endeavors to save complete strangers. This is something I hope to keep with me always.

Kathy Snead contributed to this report.

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