Psychologist Laments Lackluster 9/11 Memorials

One first responder and mental health expert says more remembrance needed.

Sept. 11, 2012— -- On this 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attacks, I believe I better understand the feelings of returning vets feel when their experiences seem overlooked and unrecognized.

In my opinion, not enough public attention is being paid to the 11th anniversary of the terrorism attacks on the World Trade Center when such attention can help heal the long-lasting scars from that tragic event.

First, 5th, 10th, and 20th anniversaries of all kinds are duly celebrated, with 25 years given special distinction of being called "silver," the 50th, "gold," and the 75th, "diamond."

Little notice would have been paid to the recent 7th anniversary of one of the biggest national tragedies in our country -- Hurricane Katrina -- were it not for Tropical Storm Isaac falling on the same day.

In-between-year anniversary dates matter little to the news media, or to the general public, but do matter much to those of us who have been close to these disasters.

Right after 9/11, I was one of the mental health volunteers assigned to the perimeter of "the pit" -- the hole left by the fallen towers, but more tragically the tomb of those who perished -- helping the first responders. We handed out water and gloves and sweaters as some nights throughout the fall evenings were chilly. Many weeks later, I was assigned to the Family Assistance Center on a pier uptown on the Hudson River, to help the families who lost loved ones.

The range of emotions about what happened -- from desolate pain to intense anger -- were powerful at the time. For many, those feelings do not disappear but resurface years later. Like for millions of women and men who have been abused, the experiences may be buried but linger for decades or a lifetime. Psychological research proves that such emotional reactions commonly resurface in what we call "Anniversary Reactions," on the date of the event.

My colleague, noted Louisiana neurological psychologist Darlyne Nemeth, and I have written about this phenomenon in professional journals that inspired the wellness workshops we conducted to help residents of Louisiana deal with these similar feelings a year after Katrina.

While being a professional gives me tools to be able to understand the cycle of these emotions, and know how to cope, I am also a citizen who has experienced the trauma firsthand and needs to heal.

Research shows that healing is a lengthy process. It is also a process necessary not only for those who were close to a disaster, but for the Diaspora and even for those who have suffered similar losses where 9/11 triggers similar memories. For that reason, highlighting a major global event like 9/11 on a regular basis can give everyone an opportunity to face their feelings.

Why are public events important?

Recognition of the tragedy.

Pain can exacerbate when you feel no one cares, leaving you feeling isolated.

With less hoopla about the 11th anniversary of 9/11, I personally feel sadness and disappointment. Every past year, the interfaith community, led by the Reverend T.K. Nakagaki, participated in a major memorial at Pier 40 on Hudson River, with prayers by the interfaith ministers, remarks from community leaders, and rituals like the Japanese lantern-lighting where messages are written on paper lanterns then set out in the Hudson River spotted by kayaks. I hosted this ceremony in 2010, and every year since 2006, my songwriting colleague Russell Daisey performs our anthem, "Towers of Light," that was written after 9/11 to honor the heroes and the nearly 3,000 souls who perished.

Talented friends had previously come to perform in this ceremony from as far away as Japan, to perform at this and other commemorative events including the Church Center For the United Nations, The Church of Paul and St. Andrew, The New York Buddhist Church, at City Hall Park, at the University Settlement House and in multiple appearances on WOR Radio's Joey Reynolds Show on the eve of 9/11. But in the shadow of the 10th anniversary, such opportunities and invitations have conspicuously not flooded in.

Creating community cohesion.

Research shows that public acknowledgement of a major tragedy helps people heal. I have written extensively about the value of community healing in the wake of disasters, in my new co-edited book, "Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet" (Praeger, 2012). The more a community comes together to assist its members in reconstruction, rebuilding, and resilience, personally and collectively, the more effective and strong both the individual and the group can be. For example, the day after 9/11 people reached out to help their neighbors. I have personally seen this same altruism in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and China. Similarly, after the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake, individuals selflessly shared their own meager resources and delivered water, rice balls, and toilets by alternate routes from disrupted roads.

Fostering connection to others.

Research shows connection to others helps healing. At community gatherings, as I written about, people share their grief, comforted n the knowledge that they are not alone.

Today, I wonder, where are my fellow first responders, and family members of the deceased and survivors I shared with so intimately about the sorrow of 9/11. Where is the electrician who drove me home one night, crying with pain over how he felt driving his car unknowingly over body parts? Where is the federal agent I sat with on a stoop under the eerie glow of the lights through the steel structure leaning over the pit, talking about national security? What's happened to the little boy who cried in my arms about not having his daddy play catch with him anymore?

I see some comrades at the World Trade Center Health Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital, that monitors 9/11 responders annually for respiratory illness.

My own tests have revealed suspicious activity in my lung that is being closely watched. Just this past week, I saw a story on the news about yet another responder who died from a 9/11 related illness.

I did see a fellow psychologist responder, Dr. Sharon Brennan; just last month when we both attended the annual convention in Orlando of the American Psychological Association, and spent a respite hour together to watch dolphins and flamingos at Sea World. I feel a deep affinity with her for having shared those days together right after 9/11, but also sad that we rarely see each other and don't really talk about what happened 10 years ago, although I want to.

Affirming optimism.

Community memorials emphasize that a traumatic event is not just a personal tragedy but a shared experience. Public affirmations (e.g., "We will heal") encourage optimism. People who came together at the memorial walls set up after 9/11, with photos of the lost loved ones, not only cried but hugged each other, offering words of hope for the future.

Dispelling intolerance.

Community events bring people together of diverse backgrounds on equal ground. A pervasive spirit after 9/11, when so many people died from different countries, prevailed of less intolerance and hatred towards "the other"... despite some anti-Muslim prejudice that emerged and protests two years ago surrounding the Muslim Community Center. For example, while sitting on the set of an MSNBC TV program as a guest commentator watching the 2011 post-tornado memorial in Joplin Missouri, I was moved by the speakers' emphasis on the sense of togetherness. For example, Reverend Aaron Brown addressed the audience as "Friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters" and used the word us, reminding the assembly to grieve together and to "love thy neighbor."

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, while I stood on the balcony of the World Financial Center being interviewed by the Arabic television network Alhurra-TV, I was surrounded by media outlets from around the world, clearly proving that the world was watching and united.

In the spirit of the motto of 9/11- "We Will Not Forget" -- an American TV network, RLTV, even aired an hour special -- which I co-hosted -- to remember the all-too-often overshadowed United Flight 93 that went down over Shanksville, Pennsylvania (not to mention the American Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon).

Recognizing different styles.

People have different styles dealing with disaster and loss. Some psychological experts insist, accurately, that some people can be re-traumatized by recounting their traumatic experiences. On the other hand, others (like me) feel better reviewing the experience, especially with those who understand and care. Of course, psychological processing with professional help can be even more healing for some.

This Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, there will be a Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, with the annual solemn reading of the names of the deceased.

But a search on the Internet indicates a scarcity of related events.

I'm honored to be participating in a memorial in Rockland County, NY at the Town Hall in Orangeburg. I was referred to the organizer, Suzanne Barclay, by my friend, Gary Sussman, director of the Vytlacil, Rockland County campus of the Art Students League of New York, with whom I collaborated on a project about recovery from the Japanese tsunami/earthquake last April.

The Orangeburg program starts at 6:30 P.M. The hour-long event includes reading of the names, remarks by local officials and myself, and performances by local high school bands and by my co-lyricist and composer Russell Daisey singing our "Towers of Light" anthem. For more information, contact:

On this 11th anniversary, I hope those who need support and recognition, get it. I say this as a psychologist, as a first responder, as an America and as a world citizen. Such recognition is even more crucial in light of so many disasters that have happened since 9/11 that have affected citizens of so many countries around the world, from the southeast Asian tsunami, to the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, to the multiple earthquakes in China in 2008 to another just last week.

In my opinion, the world still needs healing from 9/11. Inner reflection and private healing is certainly valid and warranted. But this year's 11th anniversary should also be a day for public events to focus extensively and intensively on what happened, and on future peace and tolerance.

Judy Kuriansky is a clinical psychologist and couples counselor who goes by the name of "Dr. Judy" and is well known for dispensing advice on the radio. She has donated to a Republican presidential campaign in the past. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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