Americans awoke on September 12, 2002, with a collective sigh of relief; the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks had passed. But the timetable is very different for those who lost loved ones last September. As shock fades into anguished recognition and social support slowly withdraws, the bereaved may find that the hardest days lie ahead.
Mental health professionals who specialize in bereavement have long maintained that the second year following a traumatic loss is the hardest. "When somebody dies suddenly, the mourner only learns the reality of their loss by needing the loved one and having that need repeatedly frustrated. It is extremely painful, but it teaches the person to stop expecting the loved one to return," says Theresa Rando, Ph.D., clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, Rhode Island. Some people are only now cognitively grasping the fact that their loved one is gone, and must emotionally come to grips with this newly perceived reality.
Most people who experience sudden, traumatic loss enter a state of shock that retards the grieving process for weeks or even months, a process compounded by the circumstances of September 11. Because the anniversary of the attacks was so public, mourners risk being re-traumatized by constant exposure to the circumstances of the tragedy. And a lack of physical remains can make it that much harder to accept.
The second year also brings greatly diminished social support. People are told to 'snap out of it' just as they are beginning to come to grips with loss. Widows and widowers are urged to resume dating before they can even bring themselves to remove a spouse's personal effects from their nightstand. "Grief over a traumatic death does not follow an accepted timeline. It hurts mourners more to be pressured to get over it," says Rando.
Many survivors are also dealing with other psychosocial losses, such as financial instability or loss of religious faith. Those who truly want to lend support need to acknowledge the continued grieving process, but should also be aware that vague offers to help grievers are not enough: "They don't have the energy to reach out," says Rando. "We have to reach in."