9/11: The Grief of a Nation

This year marks the 10thanniversary of the September 11th tragedy, and the nation still grieves. It is a date permanently etched into our memories...


On 9/11/01, I awakened to the clock’s radio alarm.  It had been set for 0700 PST. I needed to get my sons up, showered, and fed before I drove them to school.  I remember hearing the newscaster stating that the country was under attack.  At first I think I incorporated the news into a dream.  It simply couldn’t be true, but the urgency in the reporter’s voice became apparent.  I woke my husband up, and he silently looked up at me with a look of disbelief and horror.  We turned the television onto CNN.  A picture sure does speak a thousand words, and then some.  I tried to process the information, but it was impossible.  My youngest son Kyle came into the living room and joined us.  He asked what was happening; I couldn’t find the words to explain.  I wondered if there was any explanation anyone could give a child. I was crying, Lee was crying, and Kyle was crying when my oldest son Grant came into the room.  I remember Grant becoming very angry.  I don’t remember when, but I called Sgt. Yancey at the Encinitas, CA sheriff’s station and let him know I was available if they needed me.   I was the station’s psychiatric emergency response clinician.  I don’t remember what his response was, if he even had one. 

This year marks the 10thanniversary of the September 11th tragedy, and the nation still grieves.  It is a date permanently etched into our memories in the same emotional way as the dates December 7, 1941 (the attack on Pearl Harbor) and November 22, 1963 (the assassination of President John F. Kennedy).  Visual images, personal reflections, and a pervasive sense of grief are still prevalent in the American psyche.

The Nation Grieves

On 9/11/01 the entire country entered a state of grief even those of us who did not personally know any of the innocent victims, or those who lost their lives trying to save them. Americans also experienced personal feelings of loss; loss of safety, loss of trust, and above all, a loss of innocence.

Grief

Everyone experiences grief differently.  The severity of grief, mild to extremely intense, depends upon the perceived loss the individual has suffered. The most common symptoms of grief are:  shock, bewilderment, anger, feeling of despair, numbness, vivid dreams, extreme sadness, restlessness, anxiety, avoiding or clinging to memories, self-blame, and an inability to focus.  The grieving process goes though specific stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.   Failure to go through these stages can lead to chronic and debilitating grief, commonly referred to as “complicated grief”. 

People deal with personal grief individually, processing it at a different pace as they attempt to cope with the most common feeling of sadness. However, nationwide grief following a disaster is not only quite public; it is more intense, and inherently stronger.  Additionally, when a nation grieves the reminders are constant and everywhere. 

An increase in distress around the anniversary of a traumatic event is commonly known as an "anniversary reaction".  Symptoms range from mild unease and sadness, to significant feelings of profound depression and anxiety.  Anniversary reactions occur because the date of the original trauma activates a traumatic memory.  In a case such as the September 11, 2001 attacks, the date itself may serve as an especially strong trigger for people.  It is nearly impossible for any adult who was impacted by that event to go through that day unaware of its significance.   If they happen to forget the date, the media will serve as a constant reminder.  The symptoms of anniversary reactions to traumatic events are the same as those of PTSD:   re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance symptoms, and arousal symptoms.  Other types of anniversary reactions may involve anxiety symptoms:  panic attacks, phobias, and excessive worry.  

The Psychological Impact of 9/11

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