Why Memorialize Disasters?

The good and bad in trauma memorials and anniversaries.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 01, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Does it do any good to memorialize disasters such as 9/11? Do monuments to grief and endless anniversary remembrances re-traumatize us or strengthen our resilience?

For good or ill, memorializing is a part of human nature, says Mount Holyoke college professor Karen Remmler, PhD, an expert in the remembrance of tragedies.

"It is a very human, universal desire to remember the dead," Remmler tells WebMD. "Very often, the only way to remember is to create some kind of space. Altars, for example, or those roadside places where people put up crosses or icons or flowers. It is a way to say we respect and will not forget the dead."

Is this a good thing for people who've been traumatized?

The answer is different for different people, say Remmler and Charles Marmar, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

"There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for trauma and loss," Marmar tells WebMD. "For people who have relatively mastered a traumatic loss or stress reaction, a memorial serves a healthy, healing role. It helps them integrate and remember their experience. So memorializing honors those who are lost and helps the survivors who can manage grief well continue the process."

Some people, however, are not quite as far along in their coping. They may suffer posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Or they may have become stuck in the grieving process.

"For those highly symptomatic, who have trouble coping, who have continuing grief, who still have startle reactions and flashbacks, the anniversaries tend to be quite painful and memorializing tends to be difficult," Marmar says. "At these times they tend to have surges in symptoms and need support."

Alan Manevitz, MD, a psychiatrist at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, has a unique perspective on the issue. As a first responder who helped carry bodies from the collapsing World Trade Center, he experienced the trauma firsthand. And in his practice he's helped family members and other rescuers cope with their grief and anxiety.

"Americans as a whole have a mixed feeling about wanting to remember things. Sometimes people want to have a few minutes of memory on 9/11 and can't wait for 9/12 to come about," Manevitz tells WebMD. "Still for most people it reflects not just the terrible event but how we handled it with courage and resolve and resilience and that we were unified at that moment in time, that we persevered, and moved forward."

The families of people who died on 9/11 and rescue workers who were on the scene that day have told Manevitz that they welcome memorializing the event. They do not want that day forgotten.

"Remembering bad things that have happened is more helpful than forgetting," Manevitz says. "When you feel like you are forgotten, that actually causes more harm than not. Still, the fact is that some people's traumatic memories come up at this time when they see the images replayed."

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."

Show Sources


Alan Manevitz, MD, clinical psychiatrist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York.

Charles Marmar, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry, NYU Langone Medical Center, New York.

Karen Remmler, PhD, professor of German studies, critical social thought, and gender studies, Mount Holyoke Collage, South Hadley, Mass.

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