Remembering September 11th

Embracing grief and remembering the nature of life with gratitude.

Posted Sep 11, 2018

Remember, on this September 11th, 2018, the people whose lives were lost, the people who survived and were impacted in brutal and painful ways, the people who rose to the occasion to help others in any ways they could. Remember the goodness and kindness that rises to the fore when evil expresses itself. Remember the nature of life . . . destruction to resurrection, devastation to growth. We are grateful to be here: to remember the people and the day 17 years ago; to remember the best in human nature along with the worst; to have the opportunity to cherish the days we have; to focus on what is good; and to do good actions as much as is humanly possible. Remember that our days move along quickly, and they too will pass. Cherish life with humility, giving thanks with deep love to those who passed and to those we love who are still present. Be grateful.

When I recall my experience during and after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, and the months that followed, thoughts and feelings of revulsion and awe emerge. I focus more on the awesome ones. It can take determined effort, which I make, as doing so can prevent despair and hopelessness. It is beneficial to remember that life is not all bad, all evil, or all good. Remembering that evokes a healthy and realistic perspective. 

I was watching the morning news on TV on that day, situated mid-town some 60-something blocks North of the attacks, and as images of the towers being hit were shown, I could see the grey smoke rise in the otherwise pristine, perfect blue skies through my south-facing windows. The surreal quiet was interrupted by alarms of fire engines and police cars, and as the day went on, strange, unfamiliar odors were wafting through the air. Hundreds of people, many covered in white dust, were walking uptown, dazed and in shock, taking one step at a time away from the inconceivable. 

The goodness of people was immediately apparent. People came from other states, and eventually, when airports in and around NY allowed it, they arrived from other countries, to volunteer their help. The presence and superb help by Red Cross was constant — distributing food and water to those affected directly or indirectly. There were signs on many cafes and restaurants all over the city offering free meals to the recovery workers, their families, and to others who were adversely affected.

I had the privilege of doing volunteer work, assisting from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. at Nino's, a restaurant on Varick Street near Canal Street that was transformed into a round-the-clock drop-in center for recovery workers, policemen, firemen, sanitation workers, and others involved for months following the attack. In addition to serving food and clearing tables, I was known by some as the "undercover shrink." I was not there to give therapy, but to listen to anyone wanting to express what they were feeling. Many of those incredibly courageous people were remaining stoic, a helpful short-term strategy enabling them to do horrific tasks, and did not talk about what was happening or their feelings in those raw early months. Some gradually did express some of their bewilderment, pain, disgust, fury. Each of us handles trauma in different ways; hopefully, over time, healing is allowed, suppression released, and support can be found and availed upon.

I spoke to people in shock and grief who reached out, individually and to groups, helping as much as I could at the time and in the years that followed. I hoped I could be of help and comfort, and in so doing, I felt grateful for the opportunity. I have found that, in life, a great antidote to one's own grief and pain is to help others who are suffering. That in itself can be deeply healing.

At Nino's, I discovered that a good way to help was simply to be a calm presence and to listen. I witnessed some well-meaning volunteers attempting to push recovery workers "to talk about things — get it out; you'll feel better." It wasn't helpful to push. It catalyzed more anger in some of those people working round the clock, trying to get through a hellish situation moment by moment.

In time, when some of them felt ready to do so, they talked. Sadly — not many.

Some people I have spoken to over the years and up until this time hold on to rage about 9/11. It is affecting their health, well-being, and relationships. I hope that they can come to realize that healthy anger may fuel and motivate practical action and vigilance in life, but rage can kill. Literally. It does and has.

We can choose to remember the past, to work towards justice whereever possible, and make an effort at preventing any such happening in the future. We can choose to focus daily on what there is that is still good, hopeful, wondrous, and awesome. If one is willing to, one can do so and make it a habit, despite and including bad or the most brutal of circumstances that occur.

Let's honor those who have passed by cherishing our here and now and the fact that we still live — and can do much good in the world. If we so choose. Let's choose it.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis
Beam of Light of Remembrance from Ground Zero Site
Source: Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis

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