Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Holding Environment & Beyond 9/11

On widows, Winnicott, and chicken rearing in Afghanistan.

What d'you do when you're having a baby and it's a two-day donkey ride to the nearest health care facility? Shannon Galpin founded "Mountain2Mountain," a program that trains skilled birth attendants to make house calls in rural areas of the developing world. Galpin is now in discussion with Susan Retik about collaborating. Retik, alongside Patti Quigley, created "Beyond the 11th," a non-profit which empowers Afghani women with treasures such as chickens, feed, and materials for coops. What wonders happen when women team up!

Retik was pregnant when her husband, David, died as a passenger on one of the planes that crashed into the WTC on September 11, 2001. Quigley's husband was also killed in the 9/11 attacks. When many people in their position might have developed a sense of hatred and intolerance, they reached out to victims on the other side: Afghan women, like themselves, who had lost a spouse to war and violence. What could easily have evolved into an us/them mentality became a search for the common bonds of widowhood.

How did these women find the inner strength and resources to reach out to others in a foreign land? Retik describes a community around her that helped her mourn her losses. "Everybody wanted to do something for me," she says. "And I felt that in an unbelievable way. I couldn't turn a corner without somebody offering to help, and it really enabled me get through such a difficult time."

In the words of D. W. Winnicott, Retik's friends and neighbors provided a "holding" environment after her husband's death. They helped gather her -- in a fundamental, emotional way.

Winnicott was a British pediatrician who worked with children separated from their mother during the bombings of WWII. He pioneered ideas about how people developed strategies of emotional survival when faced with traumatic separation from a loved one.

Mother and Child (1905), Gustav Klimt

Holding means integration. When a person or group is a holding environment they foster a sense of emotional cohesiveness. They are a containing space for feeling. Psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin says that holding implies the ability "to bear one's feelings without losing or fragmenting oneself."

This mode of support is modeled on the infant's relationship with the caregiver. Winnicott wrote of the "good-enough" mother who anticipates and identifies with what the child is feeling. One way she expresses her empathy and psychic presence is through "holding." The term is both metaphorical and literal. Holding is also a form of physical management, beginning in the womb with intra-uterine life and later including the handling of an infant.

Supporting the baby's head and body encourages the integration of psyche and soma -- and a sense of reliability in one's surroundings. It lends a continuity of self so that the child becomes a unit, attaining the status of I AM. It also helps the infant's capacity for tolerating displeasure and handling intense emotion.

Holding in later life means a similar kind of affective containment. Yet the role of the good-enough mother becomes internalized by the individual or, in Retik's case, the encompassing community. It seems the experience of receiving empathy during traumatic loss can foster empathy for others. The emotional sustenance given by friends and family helped these women transfer feelings of care to widows of another world. God bless the communities that cradle us in times of crisis!


Jessica Benjamin, "The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination," (New York: Pantheon, 1988).

D.W. Winnicott, "Deprivation and Delinquency," edited by Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, Madeleine Davis (London and New York: Tavistock, 1984).

Follow me:

More from Molly S. Castelloe Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today