The 10-year anniversary of September 11 is a manifestation of the collective impulse to deal with ongoing grief and loss after a highly traumatic and public event. Anniversaries of this and other traumatic events can elicit powerful and strong emotions on the part of survivors – both those who lived through event itself and those who suffered the loss of loved ones during events.
For many, public memorials and acknowledgments are therapeutic. They are a way to express and share grief in a communal way. They are intended to memorialize those who died and to offer support and comfort to those who survived.
But for some people, these collective outpourings can have unintended consequences. While the national mantra “never forget” may be intended to respect and memorialize the victims, it can also send an unintended message to survivors by trapping them in their grief. A goal of mourning should be for survivors deal with their loss and eventually move on with living productive lives. It is normal for survivors to come to grips with their loss and, at some point, to detach from the deceased without feeling disloyal or feeling that they are “forgetting” the decedent. It can be extremely difficult for survivors of very public tragedies to move on because they become inadvertent symbols of the event during anniversaries, whether they want to be or not. While offering support is important, we must allow people to mourn and memorialize in the way that works best for them.
The National Center for PTSD offers perspective on anniversary reactions:
“A common type of anniversary reaction is feeling grief and sadness on the anniversary of the death of someone close to you. In fact, this is so common that most major religions have special services to support those who feel increased grief at these times. If the reaction is extreme, the survivor may become depressed or even think about suicide. For most people, though, the feelings of sadness at the anniversary do not last more than a brief time.
What becomes clear is that there is not one classic anniversary reaction. The anniversary reaction will differ among trauma survivors. It may depend on the type of trauma, how much time has passed since the trauma or loss, the attributes of that person, or other factors.”
While it’s normal for people to feel deep sadness around the time of an anniversary and to have events trigger intense feelings of grief and loss, we should be alert for those who experience particularly intense, difficult, long-lasting or significantly disruptive grief reactions. When grief continues to disrupt activities of daily life long after an event has occurred, a person may be experiencing something that is commonly referred to as complicated grief or unresolved grief. This is related to major depression and the person who experiences this long-lasting, unresolved grief should seek professional assistance.
Potential symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Nightmares, flashbacks, sleep disruption
- Feelings of hopelessness, despair, meaninglessness, loss of interest in life
- Intense feelings of guilt, blame or worthlessness
- Physical distress – headaches stomach distress, nausea
- Extreme anger or bitterness
- Intrusive thoughts or images
- Ongoing disinterest in and inability to perform normal daily activities
- Isolation, breaking social ties
- Thoughts of suicide
- Escape behaviors such as increased use of alcohol or drugs
If you observe someone getting “stuck” in their grief, or if you observe someone who experiences significant life disruption due to prolonged sadness or preoccupation with the events, the best thing you can do is to help them to get professional assistance.
- Coping With Grief and Loss
- 9/11 and lingering PTSD
- Complicated grief – Prolonged Grief Disorder
- Complicated Grief – the Mayo Clinic
- The National Center for Child Traumatic Stress
- Guidelines for Coping With the Anniversary of a Trauma or Death – Advice for parents, and special considerations for teachers and other school personnel in helping children with anniversaries