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Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.
Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.

Lessons from 9/11: Be Present

Avoid "woulda, coulda, shoulda" in your relationships today.

In the 9/11 issue of New York Magazine, a piece entitled "Good Bye" in the Encyclopedia of 9/11 recounts the telephone call that Beverly Eckert had received from her husband Sean on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Sean was trapped on the 105th floor of the South Tower and for the next 30 minutes, he and Beverly shared their final moments with one another loving and comforting each other through the horror of their impending loss. Countless others shared similar conversations with their loved ones who also perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers or aboard the hijacked airlines. It is hard to believe, but in 2001, phone calls were still the primary modality for communicating in "real time", texting was not available to consumers, and Facebook had not even been invented yet. Compared to today, communication in a crisis was limited, and for those who were able to connect with their loved ones, those conversations and opportunities are forever cherished.

After experiencing significant loss, it is not uncommon to reflect and chastise ourselves for "not doing more" and entertaining a period of ruminating on what we "woulda, coulda, and shoulda done" to honor the relationship and reclaim any second that we may have taken for granted. Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her book On Death and Dying outlines Five Stages of Grief which includes the process of Bargaining "If only I had...[done X] then ...the outcome [Y] would have changed." This stage gives us an opportunity to try and wrap our heads around the lack of control we feel from the loss. Often, we feel we could, and should have done more, and certainly after a tragedy or loss, we resolve to do better in the future.

When I read Beverly's account of her final phone call with her husband, I was struck by how "present" and connected she and her husband were in their final call to one another. They both knew the situation was dire. She provided encouragement and he never gave up. Despite his situation, he comforted her by downplaying his circumstances and she recognized, that true to form, he was doing this out of his love for her. She was strong for him and he was strong for her and they repeated their declarations of love until Sean's death with the collapse of the tower. I am sure, because it is only natural, that Beverly went through her own "woulda coulda shoulda" about her relationship with Sean and as a way to cope with his death, but her presence at his last moments should serve as a model for how to be present in life with our loved ones and friends.

Our world has changed a lot in the past ten years, especially in regard to how we communicate with one another. We have so many more ways to stay connected to others through technological advances and social networking. While having more opportunities seems pretty positive, it is important not to be seduced into a false sense of security that more connection means we are equally as "present' in our relationships with those we care about and to make sure we are asking ourselves if we "woulda, coulda shoulda," be engaging those in our lives differently while we still can.

As much as I am sure Beverly would have cherished a text or an email, or a message on Facebook from her husband as opposed to nothing at all, she got something far more in the opportunity to join her husband on the phone and be present with one another during their profound final moments together. In grief, it is those minutes and those opportunities missed that we play back over and over. In order to avoid regret, take advantage now of opportunities to enhance and deepen your interactions with others. Beverly had 30 minutes, but many of us right now, have all the time in the world. Here are some ideas for developing deeper connections in the next 30 days.

1. TALK: Think about important people in your life whose voice you have not heard in the past 30 days and meditate for a bit on how that feels. Do you miss the sound of their voice and long for conversations where you can respond to cues (pauses, sighs, laughter, etc?) If so, pick up the phone and call. We have become used to accepting LOL as a replacement for laughter, but it is a poor substitute for a good belly laugh. For many people in our life who are older and who may not be part of the Facebook or internet generation, the phone is their lifeline to family and friends.

2. QUESTION: Just like we have grown accustomed to saying "Hi-How are you?" as a colloquial greeting and responding with the customary "fine thank you." We often get away with this "surface" check in with our family and friends. How often do you read Facebook updates about significant events in peoples lives that you acknowledge with a cursory, "Congratulations", or "I'm sorry" or "I am here if you need me" but you don't think to go any deeper to really engage. Just because we can get away with surface these days, doesn't mean you won't have regrets at these missed opportunities. Over the next 30 days, pay particular attention to Facebook updates, email announcements, etc. and pick 3 people who have fallen in the periphery and engage them with questions and discussions about their updates. Ask specific questions that require a thoughtful responses and follow up those responses with more questions, empathy, or challenges. Introduce dialogue back into your relationships!

3. FACETIME VS. FACEBOOK. We have so many friends and so little time these days. Over the next 30 days, plan one outing or a party that brings together in person a group of friends who are important in your life, but who do not necessarily hang in the same clique and who may have gotten lost in the shuffle. All too often, we compartmentalize our friendships, which limits our opportunities to spend more time with those we care about. By bringing together a disparate group of friends, there is an opportunity to both reconnect with friends who are due some face time and to create an opportunity for the group to bond over the unique and shared aspects of their friendship with you.

Let's take a lesson from Beverly's "Good Bye" and to take a moment to think about all the relationships in your life that could benefit from your efforts to invite a deeper interaction and then do it. If you don't, you will just be left bargaining those missed opportunities.

About the Author
Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., has a private practice in New York where he provides psychotherapy to adults and couples.

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