Guest Column: Sept. 11, 2002: A grief counselor’s perspective

By Robin McMahon, LCSW, BCD
Senior Advisor for Grief and Loss
The Hospices of the National Capital Region
Fairfax, VA

But for a lively wind rustling countless flags, Sept. 11, 2002, dawned in much the same fashion as it did a year ago — another gentle late-summer morning. For months, a heightened media focus on this first anniversary and the nightly drone of military planes created an atmosphere of apprehension bordering on dread here in the Washington, DC, area. As a hospice grief counselor whose personal and professional life has been intertwined with the events of the past 12 months, this was a day of uneasy anticipation.

Like all my colleagues in hospice everywhere, I was aware that 9/11/02 would not be the conclusion of suffering. I worried that those who had hoped for an ending might be devastated by the harsh reality of continued sorrow. For my clients who lost family members a year ago, this would be yet another painful reminder that someone they loved would not be walking through the front door at 6:30 p.m. For the bereaved whose loved ones died in hospice or through other circumstances, this was yet another difficult time where the magnitude of their loss would go unacknowledged.

In the days since 9/11/01, I have been walking a fine line of political correctness in honoring the families of 9/11 victims while also reminding the media and audiences of ordinary people that every loss is important. This was my mission in the days leading up to Sept. 11, 2002. With my bereaved clients, some of whom would be gathering at the Pentagon, we had begun planning for this day since the six-month anniversary in March. We had considered the challenges of deriving meaning and/or locating refuge during one more very public commemoration of their private grief.

Over the past year, the hospice organization where I work, The Hospices of the National Capital Region, has focused on all who grieve, and had once again extended its safety net of support to the entire community. The Hospices held a service of dedication on Sept. 8 honoring the courage of all who mourn. Comforted by the delicate plucking of a harp on the grounds of our inpatient unit, over 50 people assembled to have their losses and grief recognized.

We expanded the operation of our toll-free help line to 24 hours a day from Sept. 9 through Sept. 15. My "shift" was the evening and nighttime hours. Our Public Engagement department scheduled television and radio interviews on Sept. 10 and 12th for me to share our message and publicize our free services.

At 6:45 a.m. on the anniversary, I drove past the Pentagon on my way to a speaking engagement on grief for the medical staff of a veterans’ retirement home. I listened to the radio, alert to the possibility of danger on this day. My gas tank was full and I was wearing relatively comfortable clothing "just in case." My family had been reminded the night before that in the event of an attack on Washington, we would all meet at my son’s apartment in southwestern Virginia.

Where were you on Sept. 11?’

The 75-minute talk with the medical staff included observance of a moment of silence for the 9/11 heroes and victims, but also focused on the many losses the staff had experienced over the past year. Acknowledging our community grief, the participants agreed that the question of "Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?" had gained equal importance — for those of us old enough to remember — to the same question asked of President Kennedy’s death in 1963.

Before I left the building, a staff member asked me to phone her daughter who was grieving the death of someone special on Flight 93. I validated this young woman’s choice to call in sick as her means of self-care on this difficult day and felt buoyed in return by her openness to me, a stranger.

My emotions were running high as I later waited in vain to be interviewed by phone for a live radio network broadcast. I was semi-relieved that my "expertise" was not needed. The next "event" was a local county’s ceremony honoring its residents who died on Sept. 11. I stood in the sun and listened to one of my clients speak eloquently of the redemptive lessons of tragedy that often result in honorable deeds both grand and humble.

Finally, it was time for me to begin contemplating the enormity of the events of the day and the year. While empathizing with the pain my client expressed, I also celebrated her courage in taking a risk to share her private feelings in this public forum. For the rest of the day, I reflected on the many privileges afforded by my years of working in hospice: the intimacy of sharing the moment of a loved one’s last breath; the respect for the protracted and individual nature of grief; and the gift of wisdom and compassion shown by this lovely young woman and others evident even in the darkest hours.

I ended the day and began the next waiting for the Help Line to ring; it didn’t. During the long, quiet hours, I flipped television channels to find my own refuge from the very public reminders of this painful anniversary. Sept.12 was back to business as usual. The difference for those of us working in hospice is that we must put the tragedy of 9/11/01 in the context of all the other pain, suffering, healing, and joy that we experience on a daily basis. Long after the majority of people have moved on from 9/11, we will still remember and we will be there for those who need our support.