Marking that painful day without being consumed

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 10, 2011 - 8:50 PM

A decade later, we still struggle to find the balance between remembering and letting go.


FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, the remains of the World Trade Center stands amid the debris following the terrorist attack on the building in New York. Osama bin Laden, the glowering mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed thousands of Americans, was slain in his luxury hideout in Pakistan early Monday, May 2, 2011 in a firefight with U.S. forces, ending a manhunt that spanned a frustrating decade.

Photo: Alex Fuchs, Associated Press - Ap

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Ten years, already?

Ten years, only?

Today we remember where we were and how Sept. 11, 2001, changed us. Or didn't change us. How it seems like just yesterday. Or forever ago.

How do we honor 9/11 without being consumed by it?

How do we mark the 10th anniversary of this horrific national event without turning it into another mass funeral or, worse, a parade?

We remain a country blessedly unskilled at the nuances of collective grief. Many experts harken back to Pearl Harbor 70 years ago, or President Kennedy's assassination nearly five decades ago, to find any parallels, any hints of how to respond.

I don't mean this as a criticism. It's simply an observation about why it seems tough for us to find the appropriate balance.

"We got over Pearl Harbor faster than this," said Rabbi Harold Kushner, who spoke in the Twin Cities in July. The author of the classic "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" said the attack that pulled the United States into World War II gave us "a defined enemy and we were able to defeat that enemy."

Not so this time.

We are still at war in two countries, and some among us continue to lash out unjustly and alarmingly at "loyal, law-abiding Muslim Americans," Kushner said, their anger sizzling and unresolved.

Kushner was sitting on an airplane at Boston's Logan Airport on 9/11, heading to Toronto on tour for his new book, "Living a Life That Matters." The pilot announced a slight delay due to "a small incident." Then hideous clarity, a mass exit, an airport shut down.

Kushner is not surprised by how much time, or how little time, has passed since then. He is surprised by the degree of permanence 9/11 has left on our national psyche.

"It instilled in us a sense of vulnerability that we never had before," he said. "Every time we take off our shoes in the airport, we experience that sense of vulnerability."

Others argue that we couldn't quit mourning fast enough. Within months, most of us were discussing 9/11 from an intellectual distance. We were making plans, flying again. Our innocence lost, perhaps, but our rationalization skills fully honed, allowing us to reason that a repeat of such magnitude is unlikely in our lifetimes.

I saw this emotional distancing close to home. At the two-year anniversary of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, I was struck by what an ordinary day it was; how few people were on the bridge to mark the day that 13 Minnesotans perished and hundreds remained in crushing emotional and physical pain.

When I wrote a column about that, readers railed at me to get over it already. It had been two years. A part of me wanted to side with them. Our ability to process, regroup and reclaim life is a marvelous human capacity. We could not get up and give it a go every day if we were to internalize every loss on a scale large or small.

But there is danger in trying to move on too fast.

"So many people learn to cope with their grief, but they never reach to the depths of their pain and really process it," said Margaret McAbee, executive director of Survivor Resources, a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that serves families that have experienced homicides, suicides and accidental deaths of loved ones. After the bridge collapse, McAbee's organization was tapped to lead grief groups, "because we were accustomed to dealing with trauma."

Those who minimize their grief, she said, may struggle to focus at work or to be fully engaged in personal relationships. Some suffer health problems and addictions. "You can stuff it," McAbee said, "but someday, something will happen to bring it all back."

Within weeks of the bridge collapse, three survivors had come to her for grief counseling. The group soon grew to nine, "and it kept on growing." Successful grief work, said McAbee, whose husband was murdered in 1985, allows the survivors a safe place to express anger, sadness, fear, loneliness. The pinnacle for many is choosing to forgive.

"They hear about forgiveness from friends, family, their religious community," McAbee said. "But what does forgiveness mean? It means, 'Maybe I don't need to get revenge for this. I can let it go. I can let God or someone else take care of it.' Once you release that, you can move forward and re-invest in life. That's the transformative power of grief. You see it all the time."

Four years after the collapse, the bridge groups no longer meet. "There's no lifetime membership," McAbee said. "We want to see people go out, have good lives."

Most of the survivors, she said, are doing "fairly well. A few will still probably never go back to work. Lots live with pain every day, many of them young people with neck and back injuries. But most are embracing life again."

This makes McAbee tear up with joy. Because there is danger, too, in never moving on.

"Grief never ends, but every year you should strive to get to a point where you enjoy the memory, where you remember the life [the loved one] lived and not the way they died."

This work is admittedly harder the closer we live to our personal ground zeroes. The families of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, are now marking birthdays of toddlers turned teenagers, of wedding anniversaries no longer celebrated.

But allowing a 9/11 or a bridge collapse "to become your world," McAbee said, "really stifles your life. I would be sad if the only thing people said about me was that my husband was murdered 25 years ago. Is your clock going to freeze? Is the page of your calendar never going to turn? It's your choice to change."

Kushner agrees. "I don't want my identity to be that of 'bereaved parent,'" said Kushner, rabbi laureate of Temple Israel of Natick, Mass. He wrote "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" to try to comprehend the death of his 14-year-old son from a degenerative disease.

"I've permitted myself to go back to normal life without worrying that I will obsess about it," he said, noting that every year on the anniversary of his son's death, he recites Kaddish, the Jewish mourning prayers. Likewise, "I will pause to remember on 9/11, so that I don't have to be consumed by it the other 364 days of the year."

Healthy grieving, he said, "acknowledges the loss but doesn't allow us to be identified totally by it, whether it's a personal tragedy or terrorism."

On this Sept. 11, we all have our bridges to cross, our memories to reconcile. Yet we will move forward, because of and in spite of the tragedies that befall us, trying always to live lives that matter.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

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Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in a day filled with memorials, Minnesota pauses with the rest of the nation to reflect.