With some 170 official memorials and countless related events planned for the day of and surrounding Sept. 11, we'll be hard pressed to avoid revisiting, if not reliving, that terrible bright fall day in 2001. There are open-mike sessions and town hall meetings at colleges and universities, arts programs, national conferences on reconciliation with the Muslim community, special safety preparedness training sessions, hundreds of vigils, and an array of religious services.
Along with the observations, it's likely that a lot of the old feelings will come rushing back: fear, grief, anger, inability to concentrate, jumpiness. How do we deal with these feelings, and what are healthy ways to observe an anniversary like this -- ways that help to heal rather than reopen wounds?
On Sept.11, Dana Harrison will be riding horseback on Maui with her family. The California woman had already been planning her Hawaii wedding for Sept.12, 2002, when the planes hit last year, and she and her fiancÃ© decided not to change a thing. She's adamant that no mention of 9/11 be made at the wedding. "It is very important to me that this wedding not be a 'happiness in the face of tragedy' thing -- but just our wedding. We want, as much as possible, that regular old wedding that we would have had if Sept. 11, 2001, had passed without incident."
But knowing that the specter of last year's events will be unavoidable, Harrison, an avid animal lover, planned the horseback ride for the day before the wedding. "I'm sure there will be much time for reflection on the ride. I chose the 11th for the ride on purpose. I figured I needed the special souls of animals to help me deal with all the emotions."
Don't Go It Alone
Harrison has the right idea, says Nancy Endler, RN, MSN, a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., which received most of the patients from the Pentagon. What's particularly important, she says, is not to isolate yourself. "I really do think people need to take very good care of themselves on that day. Surround yourself with good friends and family, and pay attention to things like eating right and getting enough sleep," she says.
During the anniversary, we're all going to have difficulty confronting the many reminders of the fear and loss we felt a year ago. Harrison's decision to be near both family and her beloved animals that day, Endler says, should be comforting and renewing. "Whether it's a pet, going to the ocean, exercise, playing with your children -- focusing on the things that you love may help you get through the acute part of the remembrance," she says. "If something difficult happened to you in the past, try to remember what comforted you then. It may be of help to you now." Community service might be one way to seek comfort in action: the United Way has a list of project ideas for Sept. 11 at their web site.
Other things to remember:
- You're going to grieve again. "You went through a process of grieving initially and you'll probably go through it again. Whether you felt depressed or angry or frightened, you're likely to re-experience some of those feelings," Endler says, adding that this is normal.
- Talk about what you're feeling. "Reliving the experience is probably still going to occur whether you talk about it or not," says Endler. "Acknowledging what you're feeling and talking about it is important, as is a strong support system. Join a support group to talk about your feelings if you need to."
- Although feelings of grief and fear will return, they probably won't be as detailed and powerful as they were a year ago, and they will pass. "It's normal for the day to be solemn and difficult. Go to church if you want to, spend time at memorials, or avoid memorials if you prefer not to be around any kind of ceremony. That can be healthy, too," says Endler. "But if your feelings are as strong and as detailed as they were last year and persist for a couple of weeks beyond the anniversary, at that point you should think about seeking professional help in dealing with them."
Helping Children Cope
Children will be particularly vulnerable during the anniversary period. Seeing the expected wall-to-wall television coverage of the event, with replays of the planes crashing, may make them think another attack has happened. Experts agree that it's a good idea to limit children's exposure to television coverage, and to watch with them when they do see 9/11 programming. Make sure they know -- especially very young children -- that the broadcasts they do see are replays and not new attacks.
Don't force children to attend memorials or participate in ceremonies if they don't want to. "Let children acknowledge the anniversary in their own way. Some children may express considerable interest, while others may choose to ignore the anniversary altogether. Take your cue from your child. There is no one, right reaction," says child and adolescent psychiatrist David Fassler, MD. "However, parents should make themselves available to talk to children about their thoughts, fears, and feelings if and when they are ready."
If your child seems troubled and in need of comfort, but can't express his feelings, Endler suggests asking him how he thinks other children might be feeling about the occasion. "His answer might also convey how he feels," she says.
Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD, Sept. 5, 2002.