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Some Things I've Learned in the 20 Years Since 9/11

Personal reflections on a somber day.

Key points

  • Community is of critical importance, particularly after tragedies.
  • Gratitude can help us heal.
  • Endurance and grit are necessary to get through the hard times and see good times again.
 Grant H Brenner
Source: Photo Credit: Grant H Brenner

On 9/11, I was the Chief Resident working in the Psychiatric Emergency Department at Mount Sinai Hospital. Interrupting our discussion of how to best care for the patients with us from the prior evening, we watched the news while first one and then the second tower were struck. The prior year I’d attended a talk given on working with Earthquake survivors in South America, and had volunteered for a group called “Disaster Psychiatry Outreach” (DPO).

With DPO, I volunteered in various capacities working directly with families, planning response, following-up with people we’d assisted, and later responding to disasters including tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks both in the U.S. and abroad. DPO is now a program called the “Crisis and Emotional Care Team,” part of a larger not-for-profit, Vibrant Emotional Health. Many of the colleagues I met during 9/11 continue to work for the public good in various capacities related to emergency and disaster response, and I work shoulder-to-shoulder with many of the same folks to this day. It was a formative time, and deeply personal for those involved, while at the same time a profoundly collective, shared experience.

The 20th anniversary is a watershed moment, therefore, individually and for many groups. People still suffer the aftereffects of 9/11 in many ways. We’ve had 20 years to live with a world-shaking, generation-defining event. The anniversary carries strong emotional meaning, and in many ways, while two decades is a long time, it still feels like yesterday. Our memories live so much longer than our bodies.

Growing up in New Jersey, the Twin Towers seemed like a permanent reality to me, and I believe, as for many others, the shock of how easily they fell represented a loss of innocence and shook to its foundations the American illusion of invulnerability.

The world remains in chaos, and yet life goes on. Many are suffering, unimaginably. For those who are not, the vulnerability we share has become ever more apparent. Reflecting upon all the years, all the experiences, a few things stand out among the many learnings.

Reflections on Lessons Learned

Community: Over and over again, through many disasters, the crucial importance of community stands out. Right after 9/11, there was an immediate sense of needing to work together. First responders of course led the charge, rushing into peril. The medical community banded together, foretelling healthcare’s untallied sacrifice during COVID.

I recall walking into the 25th Street Armory, where the family assistance center was first set up the week of 9/11 to help people seeking missing friends and family. The atmosphere on the way in was carnival-like, almost reminiscent of the scene before a concert with stands set up, a panoply of New Yorkers gathering, offering food, playing music, and coming together.

Gratitude: The World Trade Center attacks left a wound in downtown Manhattan which took months even to begin to heal. The clean-up, and its terrible human toll, seemed to take forever. I recall volunteering on the first anniversary. Mental health staff wore green hats to be easily identifiable. I was posted in a tent overseeing the “pit”, as families prepared for the reading of the litany of the dead. A woman with a young adult son asked me to help him tie his necktie, as his father was not there to show him how.

Summoning memories of my own father standing behind me to tie my tie when I was a kid, I asked this tall young man to sit in front of me and I did what I had learned as a child, a poignant moment which left me humbled and awed. Having lost my own mother as a youngster, it was deeply saddening and also in some ways healing for me. I hope he is thriving.

Endurance: New Yorkers are known for our grit, and 9/11 tested that to the max. It took years to work out a plan for the site, but even as it was being cleared and rebuilt, life resumed in downtown Manhattan. On the 5th anniversary, I was fortunate to serve on the Honor Guard. Still, there was no construction, but it seemed right not to rush while at the same time the irksome sluggish movement of New York real estate and politics was somehow comforting in its familiarity.

As I stood with dozens of others, feeling unworthy yet honored, we formed the outlines of where the towers had stood. I recall standing at attention for 12 hours and thinking, how, by comparison with what the ground zero workers had accomplished, the grieving families, the hot sun and fatigue paled in comparison.

Commonality: Disasters engender community for many reasons. They create an evolutionary need to band together, for one thing. By virtue of urgency, at least for that brief, shining window of a few months, crisis also reminds us that we are “simply more human than otherwise”, to quote the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan. In adversity is equality, or at least it seems that way, as crisis also reveals deep systemic inequalities. In service, I became more aware of both the privilege I have benefited from, as well as how easily fortune can turn. In 2005, I traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to help out after Hurricane Katrina.

We worked in shelters throughout the area, providing consultation and treatment for those in need, helping to manage tense situations among large groups of people who hadn’t expected to be cooped up together for so long, and coaching fatigued staff who had no relief. Seven years later, when Hurricane Sandy came to New York, I found myself in the tiniest way a refugee in my own city. We stayed put for a few days downtown where we live, with the power off and the water I saved. But when people started running around with guns drawn, we retreated to a dingy hotel uptown. Compared to the shelters in which I’d worked, this was luxury.

Hope and Healing: The world has devolved into predictable conflict since 9/11. The intent of such attacks is to provoke further conflict, amplifying already-present differences, widening divides, and moving geopolitical events away from union. Raised on the dregs of Vietnam in the early 70s, trained to learn the lessons of the Holocaust as a child, seeing the impact of unresolved grief and loss in my own family, in the years following 9/11 I’ve become ever-more convinced of the value of love and the great need for healing in the world. Perhaps on an existential level, the collective inevitability of death and loss is too much for us to handle together, as suggested by Ernest Becker in his seminal book, Denial of Death. Drawing on his work, terror management theory tells us that “mortality salience” drives many of our behaviors and decisions. When annihilation anxiety operates maladaptively, we may become destructive.

Afterthoughts

Considering what we already accomplish together, from the construction of cities and other modern marvels, to the wonders of modern entertainment and amusement, to military coordination, to business empires and technological victories, I can’t help but want to imagine a world where we heal together. If we were able to be still with the pain which comes from our impermanence, perhaps we would also be able to share greater joy in dreaming together.

Resources:

Disaster Distress Helpline

Crisis and Emotional Care Team

NY 9/11 Mental Health Resources

The Meaning of Disaster

References

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