9/11: What a Difference in a Year

The pain of Sept. 11 lingers, but for the most part, we've moved on.

5 min read

This time last year, Steve Loucks' phone was ringing off the hook. As spokesman for a company with some 3,000 travel agencies around the world, he was fielding a nonstop frenzy of media calls about terrified travelers and empty airplanes.

"No one was flying on The Anniversary," he says. "Everybody was scared. Everybody was still grieving."

But this Sept. 11, the skies will be crowded again. "We just surveyed many of our agents, asking if the second anniversary of 9/11 will affect their customers' travel plans, and only 6% said it would. Of those customers who said the anniversary wouldn't affect their plans, 58% say they're no longer worried about their safety while flying and 24% say they have moved on psychologically. And yours is the first call I've gotten on this."

Have we forgotten? Hardly. There's still that World Trade Center survivor -- one of umpteen unsung heroes that morning -- who, despite her own injuries, escorted each terrified member of her staff through the smoke-filled chaos and past the burning bodies to safety. She now works in a two-story bank in another state, refusing to step into a tall building.

There are farmers and housewives and teachers who still display the American flag on their front lawns, even though most of those dotting nearly every street in those following months have since been stored, brought out only for holidays.

And of course, there are the surviving New York City firefighters. Even if they weren't among the 500 who responded to the scene that day, all have mourned for their 343 lost "brothers" and spent nine months on Ground Zero recovery and cleanup detail, collecting their remains.

"Some haven't recovered and it looks like they never will," says Kevin Kelly, MD, a New York City psychiatrist who spends half his workweek counseling those FDNY members. "But overall, most of the guys are a lot better and are continuing to get better. They have moved on."

And it appears for the most part, so have the rest of us -- perhaps better than expected.

For the second anniversary, don't expect the thick newspaper "special editions" or too-familiar TV footage. The New York Times reports that virtually every media company it surveyed plans some commemoration coverage of the terrorist attacks, but far less than last year. The reason given: People don't want to spend as much time in reflection this year.

And that may be good, say some experts.

"You don't want to forget, but you don't want to over-remember it, either," says Rachel Yehuda, PhD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "Some people may feel they need to dwell on the anniversary, or it may make the past, or their lost loved one, seem less important. But by dwelling on it, by not being able to go five minutes without remembering this or any other tragic event, you're not able to move forward."

But she's seen no evidence of that this year related to 9/11. "People call for treatment and we treat them. But I haven't gotten, or can't imagine anyone else getting, calls from people saying that 'the anniversary of 9/11 is coming and I'm not sure I can handle it.' Mental-health workers are not on top of people's Rolodexes, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. While we cannot conclude that people are not suffering, we can conclude that they have other ways of trying to cope with it."

Some have coped by following the lead of the skyscraper-avoiding banker and fallen firefighters, says Frank Farley, PhD, professor of psychology at Temple University and a longtime researcher on heroism.

"There is no question in my mind that we're a better nation now than we were before 9/11," he tells WebMD. "We've become stronger. We've become more resilient to adversity and less tolerant of the anti-hero -- not only terrorists but also the Enrons and WorldComs. Because of 9/11, we now have a clearer understanding and appreciation of the traits that define heroism, and I believe, a greater willingness in trying to emulate it.

"The average person may or may not be any more willing to run into a burning building to save the baby, but I believe that overall, people are more courageous and generous in their everyday lives ... at least I see it around me," Farley says. "And I think it's because the heroic acts we saw on 9/11, from firefighters and others, were displayed in everyday people just like us. It inspired us to be better."

Yet Thursday will be a difficult day for many -- especially those most closely touched by the tragedy.

"Most of us have moved on, but it's important to keep a clear distinction between those who lost someone and the rest of us," says Yale University grief specialist Holly Prigerson, PhD. "It was a poignant moment in all our lives. We were all connected to that event, so it is important for us to remember what it was like. I think most Americans have grown from it and maybe are more compassionate and more aware that our time here is limited, so we appreciate things more.

"But in real grief, you never get over losing someone you love. And there is often a flurry of symptoms of intense acute distress that come about two years after the loss, especially on the anniversary."

There is no proper way to grieve for them, whether they were family members or just strangers' names scrolled across the TV last year. "Grieving is very personal, and the only mistake you can make is to think there is a right way and wrong way to do it," says Kelly.

But there are signs that grief is consuming you and might warrant psychiatric help:

  • If images or memories of 9/11 are exclusively destructive, absent of comforting memories of lost loved ones or remembrance of heroic acts
  • If these images are intrusive, you can't get them out of your mind
  • If you regularly have trouble sleeping for more than two weeks, often dreaming of the event
  • If you overuse medications, alcohol, or other substances because of it

"Even seeing the images on TV could be harmful to some people, and I certainly hope they don't air them this year," says Prigerson. "My advice: If they're on TV, just don't watch."

Published Sept. 5, 2003