The first thing I remember about the morning of September 11, 2001, is the sound of sirens. I lived one block north of the 66th Street and Amsterdam fire station, so I was used to sirens the way most New Yorkers are used to them: they are part of the white noise of the city. On the morning of 9/11, however, the sirens transcended white noise; they were the only noise. The unabating electronic wail woke me at 8:55am. I turned on news radio and immediately heard: American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
As I turned on the television my thoughts were with my ex-roommate. Millie was four months pregnant with her second child; her husband worked on one of the higher floors of the North Tower. As the first pictures registered on the screen I sank into an armchair and watched the city turn inward on itself. All day sirens wailed as up from the city’s southernmost tip the smell of burning flesh silently rolled north like the unfurling of a heavy carpet.
Back in 2001 I wasn’t good at dealing with grief. Struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a childhood trauma I lived in a state of perpetual numbness. I watched the devastating images—towers falling, frozen faces of people escaping—and felt sympathy and compassion. As much as I thought I should cry, however, I couldn’t. I knew this was a time to grieve but the process (even later in the reality of Millie’s husband’s death) of grieving eluded me.
A few years later in my quest to heal PTSD I relocated to a small beach town in South Florida. For many years I stayed away from Manhattan as I worked to reclaim a healthy emotional life. I succeeded. That’s when grief caught up with me.
During a visit back to the city I went to Ground Zero for the first time. The tragedy had occurred more than a decade before; I didn’t expect to feel grief as I approached the reflecting pool, but with each step toward the smooth marble walls with the thousands of inscribed names my throat constricted, my chest clenched and my head began to ache. My fingers touched one and then another of the names etched in the stone and suddenly tears poured forth.
Some people come late to grief while others arrive early and never leave. According to Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and author of Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Grief, “We reconcile ourselves to traumas, not resolve them. Even when you have done what is referred to as ‘trauma processing’ there will always be remnants of carried pain from trauma loss. This pain often shows up in the form of ‘griefbursts’—heightened sense of loss with an invitation to revisit pain that originated from the trauma.”
Wolfelt has developed a model for teaching trauma survivors to gently and with self-compassion befriend carried grief when it naturally calls out for the attention it deserves. The method involves four phases: 1. Acknowledge carried pain; 2. Overcome resistance to doing the additional work; 3. Actively mourn carried grief; 4. Integrate carried grief.
“We have all heard the cliché ‘time heals all wounds.’ Yet, time alone has nothing to do with healing. While it would be nice to be able to ‘put the past in the past’ traumatic experiences demand otherwise. Griefbursts are tied to that inclination to, from time to time, look backward and see how the trauma transformed your life.”
Even when grief is processed in a timely fashion, the pain of grief can linger. Often, explains Courtney Armstrong, Licensed Professional Counselor and author of Transforming Traumatic Grief, this is because grievers feel guilty for resuming life; they maintain their connection to the deceased through the act of grieving.
“We used to think recovering from grief meant you had to accept your loved one was ‘gone.’ Now research has shown finding a way to maintain a loving, continuing bond with the deceased is the most adaptive way to heal.” To accomplish this Armstrong suggests finding ways to create a healthy, continuing bond by imagining conversations with the deceased, reminiscing on positive memories, or carrying the person’s legacy forward in other ways. “It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you find a way to integrate any positive experience you got from that relationship into your life.”
Sometimes, getting over grief is a sort of fake it til you make it process: You carry on even while experiencing the mind-bend of going in and out of the pain, seeking ways to transform your relationship to the loss so that you learn to live with grief rather than be consumed by it.