Ten Years After: A Personal Remembrance of Sep 11th – Strategies for Grieving, Surviving & Evolving

A Board Member of the Greater Metro-DC Region of Federally Employed Women (FEW; an educational-legal-support association for government employees) recently wrote,

“Are you planning to write something for the 9/11 anniversary coming up. I bet a lot of people would like to hear you on this stress related topic. It’s going to be a very tough road for some of those people even though they will have a number of events going on. Thanks.”

Below is my response. Thank you Lyn for your inspiring note.



I just read your article. It’s incredible!!! The story about your girlfriend brought tears to my eyes. How poignant! I will definitely share!

Keep writing! You’re an inspiration to me! Gotta go! Take care and keep in touch Mark!

Ciao for now! {smile}

Linda L. Fresh
Associate Editor

FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Outreach and Communications Unit

Training Division, Quantico, Virginia


Click here: Stress Doc: Notes from a Motivational Psychohumorist ™: Ten Years After: A Personal Remembrance of Sep 11th – Stra



Ten Years After: A Personal Remembrance of Sep 11th

Strategies for Grieving, Surviving and Evolving

An earthquake…a hurricane…and an upcoming ten-year anniversary; whew, what a powerful trifecta to close out the summer. And as unnerving and disruptive as the first two have been (or continue to be), neither evokes the indelible 9/11 images and memories of planes crashing into the Twin Towers and dive-bombing the Pentagon, of billowing smoke and raging fires, of skyscrapers and walls crumbling, of a sun eclipsed by a biblical swarm of fluttering yet forever suspended gray ash and white paper (the anti-manna from heaven), of courageous passengers storming a cockpit or civil service heroes marching up a staircase while throngs desperately file out, of people running incredulously and sobbing uncontrollably…or heads and hearts just numb, dazed or frozen in fear.

Not having been directly at any ground zero point on Sep 11, 2001, there’s an immediate, mind-body-soul shocking 9/11 perspective that will always elude me. However, ten years ago, I was both living in the District on that day of infamy (about 1.5 miles from the White House) and then, three days later, journeyed by rail to NYC to be with my family (despite sketchy rumors of bomb threats at Penn Station). The most vivid memory still is meandering through downtown Manhattan’s Washington and Union Square Parks that night, bodies aimlessly streaming by, with those smiling pictures and posters, “screaming” with Munch-like intensity, pleading helplessly for missing loved ones. The background sounds of mournful strumming and voices whispering, the flickering lights of scattered campfires, with human features cast in haunting shadows; yet occasional nods from heads passing by: “we’re still here”…One could hardly escape the “end of the world,” post-apocalyptic imagery.

And yet the world goes on, even if at times we seem to be going through the (e)motions. Why do we take the time to recall this day of poignancy and pain – a decade later? Surely to honor that array of humanity who lost their lives; and to acknowledge and support those who lost treasured family, friends and colleagues. But also to recognize the people who survived in body, but whose heads and hearts have been forever seared, contorted in a Rubik’s Cube of unpredictable flashbacks and unending questions. While buildings and monuments may be erected, there are some voids which can never truly be filled.

A Vignette Close to Home

My girlfriend’s experience has shined light on this truth. She lost her 18 year old daughter in a car accident sixteen years ago, on Sep 11th! (For my girlfriend, 9/11 was/is like ripping apart a nearly yet never quite closed scab; the annual reopening of her personal Pandora’s Box.) Years had to go by before a semblance of life’s “normal” ups and downs could return. Attending the local chapter of the national support group “Compassionate Friends” (typically composed of parents, sometimes other family members, grieving the loss of a child or sibling of any age) kept her sane, if not saved her life. One day-at-a-time sleepwalking and fighting to go on imperceptibly transforms the interminable exile in purgatory – a smile returns, then, unconsciously, one day she does not make a pilgrimage to her daughter’s room; she can go whitewater rafting – a trip that her daughter will never make – without drowning in guilt. Eventually she steps up to a leadership role in her support group, sharing a sadder yet wiser healing heart with the newly grieving.

Yet every day the loss is still there. Pictures of Cecily abound; her passions and hopes are still vividly cited. And when a friend or acquaintance spontaneously recalls a Cecily memory or moment my girlfriend’s whole being vibrates: her daughter has not been forgotten. And still, especially on anniversary dates or the eve thereof – birthdays (Cecily’s is Valentine’s Day), the doubly daunting day of Cecily’s death, etc. – she invariably contracts what I call the “psychic flu.” Normally a high energy, effervescent individual, for 24 to 48 hours a quiet melancholy descends; she needs to be alone with her thoughts. A rub on the top of her head or a brief massage of her shoulders may be the only way for me to connect and be close.

But whether fired by courage or compulsion, this silent communion keeps her daughter’s spirit alive, inside, where the original seeds of life took form, and now where ongoing traces of memory can regenerate. As I once penned: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

Stress Doc “Top Ten”

So what does the Stress Doc recommend for this upcoming anniversary? Consider these ten stress relieving, memory shaping and mind-body-soul-soothing-and-searching suggestions. It’s time!

1. Reflection Time. Create some quiet reflection time; not just thoughts of 9/11 but all kinds of unfinished grieving can be stirred around emotional markers and milestones; e.g., a friend, John, a former Artillery Officer during the Vietnam War, was surprised that he was still feeling a sense of malaise a week after 9/11. Upon reminding him how years back his first wife lost her life in a house fire despite John’s heroic rescue efforts, he suddenly looked at me intently and said, “I hadn’t thought of that,”

2. Tears, Sorrow and Phoenix Time. If necessary, allow tears to flow; remember there’s a real difference between, “Feeling sorry for yourself and feeling your sorrow. When feeling sorry for yourself, you tend to blame others; when feeling your sorrow, you have the courage to face your pain. At times, we all need to embrace our sorrow.” The courage to embrace pain ultimately fuels a greater purpose. As I once wrote in haiku-like fashion:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes

One must know the pain

To transform the fire to burning desire!

3. Intimate Connection Time. Spend time and connect with loved ones; if there are young children in your life, nurture that bond; offer up both pictures and stories of your family’s founding mothers and fathers and, if possible, of generations beyond,

4. Group Sharing Time. Share moods and memories with a group who have walked in your shoes, (and can feel those bunions), especially if there are folks with whom you can reveal both tears of hurt and laughter; during these poignant periods, talking briefly with a spiritual advisor or a professional counselor may also prove to be an emotionally liberating step,

5. Playful Memory Time. Recall and communicate a playful memory of a missing loved one; engage in an activity that the loved one liked to do,

6. Be in Nature Time. Take a walk in a forest, listen to the soothing sounds of a flowing stream (hopefully not an overflowing river); reconnect with our universal mother – “Mother Nature” – and your own spiritual essence,

7. Bubble Bath Time. Immerse yourself in a warm bubble bath with soulful music and scented candles; treat yourself to some aromatherapy; (just leave the door or window open a crack; as a Stress Doc newsletter reader once reminded me, don’t let the candles suck all the oxygen out of the room),

8. Journaling Time. Try journaling; write your own 9/11 essay, poem or remembrance memorial, whatever the occasion or the person you are missing; research shows that quickly sketching out your emotions and then examining and reconfiguring them through a more analytic lens has stress relieving value; memories are not set in stone, but can be lovingly shaped by various modes of recalling, reliving and retelling,

9. Friendship-Building Time. Use this anniversary to build a friendship with someone new; how about with a person of a different generation or culture? I can’t think of a better 9/11 legacy than this anniversary motivating each of us to take small but significant steps to bridge the human divide; also, follow the lead of military spouses: when their soldiers go down range, each one partners with a “battlefield buddy.” Surely, in these uncertain, pressure-packed times we all need a “battlefield” or workplace “stress buddy,” and

10. Discovering Passion Time. Find a source of passion in your personal or professional life; especially an activity that allows you to develop a skill, to bring out or evolve those more authentic, deep and richly complex parts of yourself. Sometimes it’s returning to a hobby or an interest that we once deemed “childish.” Or, consider my father’s passionate mid-life commitment. As a youngster, he shied away from sports because his older brother was the “natural” athlete. In his mid-40s, he decided to try his hand and mind at tennis, at first a scary undertaking. Dad truly became a devoted student of the game, taking lessons, continuously practicing against a handball court wall, initially hitting with my brother and me, and eventually playing games with others. Discovering that he had athletic abilities helped reconfigure an outdated and distorted self-image. This new undertaking also motivated him to stop years of smoking. And beating his gifted brother in a tennis match was a crowning mid-life achievement!

A Final Maxim and Mantra

As the pioneering scientist, Jonas Salk, declared: Evolution is about getting up one more time than we fall down; being courageous one more time than we are fearful; and trusting just one more time than we are anxious.

I’ve decided to “walk” my talk; sort of putting Salk’s maxim to the test – I’m flying to Alaska on Sep 11th. It’s the beginning of a three city speaking tour for the Alaska State Civil Litigation Division. (I’m also taking some time in between to hike and meditate in Denali National Park.)

In closing, I don’t have illusions of this anniversary bringing us together as a nation; but perhaps we at FEW (Federally Employed Women) can make some difference by extending an arm around a colleague’s shoulder, or listening compassionately to a sister or brother – both literal and metaphoric. My latest mantra: Grieve, let go and inspire flow. Surely words and actions to help one and all move ahead with courage and conviction and, of course, to…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, the Stress Doc ™, www.stressdoc.com, acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker, Webinar Presenter, Retreat Leader and Motivational Humorist, is the author of Practice Safe Stress and The Four Faces of Anger. A former Stress & Violence Prevention consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc leads highly interactive, innovative and inspiring programs for corporations and government agencies, including the US Military, on stress resiliency/burnout prevention through humor, change and conflict management, generational communication, and 3 “R” — Responsible, Resilient & Risk-Taking — leadership-partnership team building. Email [email protected] for his popular free newsletter & info on speaking programs.

Stress Doc Mantra: “Think out of the box, perform outside the curve (the Bell Curve) and be out-rage-ous!”

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Carol Davison

I grew up commuting distance from New York City. My classmate’s Dad, Joe Driscoll, was en route to a hike at Yosemite when he was killed on Flight 93 in PA. Our town formed a “Walk with Joe” committee which we do every 9-11. We honor the victims, the police and fire heros, and the disabled veterans who have since fought to defend us. We say the pledge of allegience, sing God Bless American and the Star Spangled Banner and a bag piper leads us in the Marine Corps Hymn and the Army Song on our “Walk with Joe”. It’s all very positive. We’ve rasied over $275,000 in the past ten years.

Mark Gorkin

Thanks, Carol. Very poignant. You are truly performing a “mitzvah” — Hebrew for a good if not sacred deed!

Continued success on your mission.