I awoke early Friday morning to travel to Manhattan to present at the VOICES of September 11th Resiliency Conference. Mary and Frank Fetchet created VOICES of September 11th, in the aftermath of the death of their son in the World Trade Center.
We met five years ago just before the tenth anniversary of the attacks when Mary delivered a keynote address at “Counselors Remembering 9-11: A Shared Journey”, a workshop I helped to organize through the Connecticut Counseling Association. Shortly thereafter, I volunteered at their tenth anniversary forum for survivors and first responders. Since then, I have heard her speak many times and we reconnected when I became the Clinical Recovery Leader in Newtown following the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting. I was honored to be asked to be part of the VOICES Resiliency Conference this year to share lessons learned from my work there.
Our relationship is a keen message of not knowing where you will be called to provide service. Five years ago, I didn’t imagine I would become embedded in a traumatized community following a communal tragedy. As I sat on the early morning train to Manhattan, I reflected on the past five years, how Mary and I came to know one another and the foundation our relationship provided me for my work in Sandy Hook. I am a firm believer in answering the call to rise to serve when it presents itself as it did for us in Connecticut. It has been a journey of intense pain and immense personal growth.
I left the quiet solitude of the train into Grand Central Station and then the subway downtown exiting into a chaotic scene in the vicinity of the Freedom Tower. It is breathtakingingly framed by the World Trade Center's massive wing-like transportation hub; I paused for a moment feeling disoriented as the area had changed significantly from the last time I was there just one year ago. I was overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds and the people; the sidewalks were crowded with tourists and tour guides. Many streets were closed and there was a very strong, heavily armed police presence. It was such a contrast to five years ago when there was a calm almost peaceful energy to the area.
I was grateful to enter the Marriott and leave the chaos behind. The focus of the program was resilience and many spoke to the good therapeutic works done to support the recovery and healing. During a break in the program, I browsed through the displays of art that had been created to express the world’s pain and grief. The postal service received thousands of letters that bore images of sadness, loss and of hope. One example is shown below.
As I listened to the speakers, there was a resounding theme of resilience and the many paths to experience it among survivors. A few lessons learned were clear:
- Trauma survivors heal as they are able to, when they are able to.
- Grief is a persistent experience that is learned to live with.
- Pre-existing traumatic events complicated the survivor’s recovery.
- Clear, consistent communication is an ongoing need 15 years after a communal tragedy.
- Children who lost parents at 9-11 experience renewed emotional challenges as they enter early adulthood
- There is a stigma of being identified as a 9-11 kid or survivor.
- Anniversary reactions continue to be problematic.
i chose to not visit the 9-11 Museum or visit any of the memorials, opting instead to return home. As I rode the train back to Connecticut, I appreciated the sentiments shared by many in attendance, and acknowledged how the depth the events of the past 5 years have profoundly impacted me in ways I am unable to articulate clearly. I honor the need to shield myself from the news and media, acknowledge my sensitivity to violence and allow my personal path of honoring the communal grief of 9-11, Sandy Hook and all of the other mass tragedies experienced in the world. My greatest lessons learned are to care for myself in equal measure to how I care for others.