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September 11th

It’s the large elephant in the week — September 11th — and it begs you to discuss it, remember it, dissect it.

I didn’t know how I wanted to write about it.  I could only acknowledge that my mind and heart felt like I needed to write about it, that neither wouldn’t be able to continue on to other thoughts or ideas until I had put this one to rest.  So I started working backwards, figuring out how I didn’t want to write about it.

I didn’t want to relive it.  I didn’t want to tell once again where I was when I found out what had happened.

I didn’t want to pull out my student’s recollections on September 11th and post a part of it here.  That felt like I was trespassing on their hearts.  Though I am still sitting with the idea of Googling a handful of them, reaching out to mark the moment with an email reminding them what they said ten years ago.

I didn’t want to discuss the news coverage.  I didn’t want to go down to the memorials.  I didn’t want to photograph anything or roundup posts.

Which leaves us with this.


I am a huge lover of analogies and metaphors.  It would probably make for an amusing piece of cloud art if someone culled all the various analogies from my last 5+ years of blog posts.  I blame my mother — she is the master of the analogy.

I think it is human nature to want to explain something we don’t know by using something we do.  It is not even always something we don’t know; sometimes it is just something too large, too messy, too emotional to be able to look at it directly.  Sometimes we use an analogy in order to reduce something in size, make sense of it, contain it.

And I think we often do that with the concept of healing.

We know what it means to physically heal.  Either we’re physically hurting, or we’re not.  Either the bone is broken or it is mending or it is now imperceptibly different from before but still on this side of well.  We know what it means to have physical scars that show a physical trauma.  Healing doesn’t necessarily mean going back to exactly the way it was before, but with physical issues, we can usually define where we are on the spectrum from hurt to mending to healed.

Slightly more fuzzy becomes the idea of mentally healing since our mind is not as well-defined as our other body parts.  Still, we know when our brains are on the mend, when it seems like a medication is working or not working.  Control over the situation may wax and wane, but it still feels like something we can discuss in the realm of healing, of returning or bringing the brain to a place where we want it to be.

But where I think the analogy breaks down is applying what we know about physically healing to emotionally healing.  We seem to believe that people emotionally heal in the same sense that we physically heal.  We have sayings, for example: “time heals all wounds.”  We know this isn’t true physically — do nothing to stop the bleeding and time won’t be able to jump in there and heal you.  But it also isn’t really true for emotional pain, is it?

Sometimes I think a better analogy would be comparing emotional pain to a pair of binoculars.  When you are in the moment, everything looks even closer and larger than it does if we had a bit of perspective.  We focus on these tiny bits of information, replaying them over and over again in our minds.  Maybe because the whole is too enormous to contain.  And then time passes, and we turn the binoculars around.  Years later, it pretty much all looks the same, except farther away and we’re more acutely aware of how the image we’re seeing fits into the bigger picture.

Maybe this is how empathy exists — because if we truly healed (applying the physical concept of healing), we would forget.  But instead, we can all still visualize the object of our emotion pain, only it is faraway, remote, held in place by other points on the landscape.  We don’t access it in the same way; we can’t turn the binoculars around again and view it close-up any more than someone who is in the throes of the moment can choose to turn their binoculars around and hold their pain at a distance.  But we still see it; quite clearly albeit far away.


The other problem is that when we apply what we know about physical healing to emotional pain, what we get is impatience.  There is this idea that time has passed, therefore, you have to heal.  We give people an incredibly small amount of sympathy all things considered, and then expect them to buck up and rejoin the human race.  People become incredulous — “you need to move on and stop moping!” — or simply stop asking about the loss.

We don’t coddle our mourners on a day-to-day basis, which is why I’m a bit uncomfortable with this idea of a ten year check-in for September 11th.  Will we be okay if we discover that widows are still finding it difficult to get through their day?  If we find out that children are still devastated without their parents?

We are expecting all of them to say that life went on, that they’re living wonderful lives despite their pain.  Humans need that — we need to hear that people can go on to lead full lives because it is what we grasp when we are in the trenches.  We need to know there is a stopping point because how else can we survive if we face the fact that emotional pain is often open-ended?  It changes in sharpness or frequency, but for some people, it doesn’t quite disappear fully?

On one hand, is there any other way things can go except forward?  We all suffer from emotional pain and the world can’t grind to a halt.  As much as WH Auden implores us to “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone / Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come,” how can we let life remain at a standstill?

If we didn’t move from emotional pain, life would become a cacophony of an echoing past, much the same way sound hangs in the air in Tomba Emmanuelle.  You need to move gingerly in there, and life cannot really float on ginger movements.  Every single person on this earth is in a state of mourning someone.

But on the other hand, isn’t it equally as damaging to expect people to “get over” something?  To move on?  To forget?  We know what to do to make a bone heal.  We have protocols to treat a whole host of illnesses (sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t).  But we don’t have a cut-and-dried manual to emotional healing.  We tell people to write about the loss, to talk about it, to join a support group.  But we also tell them to get back to living (since when is someone not living just because they are mourning?  Isn’t mourning a part of living?).  To stop obsessing over it (since when is thinking about something that has affected you enormously obsessing?  Wouldn’t obsession be a huge focus on a fairly small situation; disproportional?  Isn’t it understood that enormous, life-changing events will occupy a large stake of our emotional energy, possibly even blotting out everything else?)

I wish we had a different word for it.  I wish we didn’t treat emotional healing in the same way that we treat physical healing, if we didn’t paint both with the same broad brushstrokes.  I know that I feel differently today than I did ten years ago, but I wish the word that we used wasn’t “healed” because I think it also doesn’t pay tribute to the way an event changes you.  We don’t slide back into place easily, continue from the same point we were before a loss.

We instead build a new life, over and over and over again, more like a phoenix.  It looks like the same bird, but it is wholly and completely different.

I assume that what we’ll see from September 11th, ten years on, is a snapshot of a life.  It may show a scene where a person is holding down a job and making coffee every morning and raising their children.  But I would guess that below the surface, there is a wide-range of emotional states: a wider-range than can be described with the term “healing.”  There will be those who hold it together all day on the outside, and fall apart once they’re alone.  There are those who will admit that there are triggers, but they mostly power through their day-to-day without thinking too long or hard about what they have lost.  There will be those who will kick themselves because they don’t think they are sad enough ten years on and there will be those who will kick themselves because they feel like they shouldn’t be quite this sad ten years on.

And I am guessing it is this way with all loss — not just the ones we mourn on a national level.  We all could do well to release ourselves from the word “healing,” from believing that what we know about physical mending can be applied to emotional mending, and to create a new vocabulary for dealing with loss.  Something that brings in elements of healing, but is its own idea altogether.


My heart goes out to everyone who is mourning, who is navigating the world without a person they love in it.  I want to tell them to take the time they need, whether it is five minutes or a life time.  Please don’t allow the mental timetables of others dictate how long you need to feel whatever you need to feel.  Forgive me if you needed me to ask about your loss and I haven’t.  May your rebirth from each loss be a peaceful one with time.  The reality is that we need to let the clocks run again as well as let the telephone ring, but only you can decide when the right time is to see the secondhand turning or pick up the line.

I guess that is what I needed to say about September 11th.  What do you need to say?


1 Becky { 09.07.11 at 8:43 am }

I agree that something needs to be said; I feel like I need to say something about it. But I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to say. This is a post that’s been floating around the fringes of my mind for several weeks, and I can’t quite grasp what it wants to be, to say. Your post, however, is quite eloquent and well put. Thank you.

2 Bea { 09.07.11 at 8:52 am }

I need to ask… As a non American… You have talked about personal loss, but has America as a nation, as a culture, changed appreciably? Because in the immediate aftermath of the loss I heard a lot of otherwise respectable sources put forward the opinion that it had all happened because, basically, America was just too awesome for some people to deal with, which I guess is the sort of thing you say when you’re reeling, but I wondered what the general consensus is these days?


3 Bea { 09.07.11 at 8:54 am }

The consensus from within America, that is, obviously.

4 Bea { 09.07.11 at 8:57 am }

Sorry feeling like I need to clarify… I mean, how does America explain the event to it’s (collective/figurative) children these days? How does it explain it to itself? Etc. I’m not really getting closer bit this might have to do.

5 April { 09.07.11 at 9:03 am }

As I watch Jamie growing up, I realize that she doesn’t understand what happened on that day. She was 2. She doesn’t remember the world before the towers fell. Any children that I have won’t know what life was like before 9/11. I remember where I was, what I was doing, the people I was with when I heard that the first tower had fallen. I remember hearing about the plane in Shanksville and realizing that it was not far from where I was in Pittsburgh. I remember being scared and not being able to leave work until after most of downtown had already been evacuated. The buses weren’t running at that point and I had to meet my then boyfriend a few miles away in order to get home that day. I worried going back to work the next day. When the planes began flying again, I worried even more.

Looking back on it, I see it as another defining point of tragedy, one of those things where you never forget where you were. My mom recalls Kennedy’s assassination. I recall 9/11 and the Challenger.

6 Mel { 09.07.11 at 9:08 am }

I notice a big diffence in Americans, but I’m not sure it’s explainable. It’s more something to experience. It would be like trying to explain an accent. I can tell you which part of Maryland someone is from by hearing them speak, though I’m sure to an outsider that most Americans sound alike and you can only hear the enormous accent differences, such as the South vs. New York.

I’ve never heard someone say we were attacked because we’re awesome. I’ve always hear more that we were one of what could have been many targets in the western world. When I hear it described now, it is still focusing on a way of government, a way shared with a lot of the world. I’d also say there is a big difference in how it is discussed person to person vs. in the media. I would guess that is true for any country. What outsiders read is very different from what citizens actually live.

Other people’s thoughts?

7 Bea { 09.07.11 at 9:48 am }

As an example, the west wing episode about the event stands out, but there were other instances of the same idea in the media. You’re right it’s different listening to the media cd conversations on the street. I guess that was why I was curious to hear it from people here rather than just what the news dishes up.

8 Chickenpig { 09.07.11 at 10:51 am }

Today is September 8. I was shocked reading this thinking “I missed it, It’s September 11 th already?”

I’m not sure what to think of September 11th. I think mostly that September 11th can stand in line. It’s a tragedy, but it isn’t by far the worst tragedy America has suffered, at her own hands or by others. Why should this date be so special? We lost many more people when the Lusitania was sunk, but does anyone remember that date anymore? Except for the people who lost loved ones, it seems self indulgent to keep picking at the scab. They lost people, I didn’t, and it feels intrusive to me for the nation to keep bringing out the spouses, parents, and children of the lost for our benefit. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of our civil war. 600,000 Americans dead, and no one is batting an eye. If Americans really want pathos they only have to visit any of the national battlefield sites. The grass grows green over all of them, and us, eventually.

9 Gail { 09.07.11 at 10:56 am }

I think your question is a good one, Bea. And, it made me think. Before, I always thought of 9/11 as just an American thing. And, even then, it depends on how involved you were with the event. I know a woman whose brother died in the Pentagon. I know that when I found out that the towers fell, I was worried about a good friend living in NY at the time (who ended up being fine although he had a long commute home to NJ with all the mass transit shut down that night). And, I know someone who signed up to fight in the army because of 9/11 and did 2 tours in the middle east. But, I don’t have any personal connection with any of it because I didn’t lose anyone that I know.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel empathy and sadness when I think about that day. I was scared and worried and anxious and I still am to some degree. And, I will never forget what I was doing and where I was when it happened. As someone else said, this is our generation’s version of the Kennedy assassination. But, I also recognize that there are people who live outside the US who experience the same feelings on a daily basis. People in Israel and Palestine live through the knowledge that an attack could take away their loved ones at any time, yet they continue their lives because that is just what you do. You acknowledge the fear and sadness, but you can’t let those feelings consume you because you have to continue living.

So, maybe the 9/11 attacks were a wake-up call to the U.S. that there are others out there who are suffering, too. Or, maybe the attacks were just part of a bunch of sick, crazy people who wanted to hurt innocent people. I don’t know why it happened and I don’t dwell on that. I hope that we (Americans) can find ways to work together and find more ways that we are similar instead of focusing on a few differences so that we can make the world a better (and maybe safer) place for the next generation.

10 Mary { 09.07.11 at 11:00 am }

Warning – this comment wanders all over the place.
My husband and I were talking about this last night. I compared our “celebration” of September 11th to a prehistoric people huddling together around their camp fire after their home was destroyed by lightning. Even though fire can burn, destroy, devastate – it still provides a place of coming together, warmth and safety from the things outside. We humans/Americans feel the need to dwell a little on the places that hurt us because it is more comforting than the possibility of forgetting what happened and allowing it to happen again. I’m not saying it very well, but hopefully the metaphor gets through. I also think it means something to the families of the heroes of the day – police and firefighters and everyday people who lost their lives trying to save others – to have us remember their sacrifice and celebrate it.

There are things that change us, leave a scar. And even though it may not hurt anymore, we still find our fingers tracing the edges of that old wound, simply because it wasn’t there before. I think of my c-section scar, my son’s hernia surgery scar, and while part of me mourns the loss of how perfect he was, I am grateful for it, because the surgery saved his life. Part of his bowel was encapsulated in his scrotum, and we didn’t even know it until the routine surgery to close his hernia.

Anyway, thanks for the post, Mel. I clearly needed to think more about this stuff.

11 a { 09.07.11 at 11:00 am }

I think it’s a really great thing to reflect, to check back in. I hope it will show that life does go on, but people never fully recover mentally from something like this. That there are kids who are still feeling lost without their parents – even if they are outwardly successful. The fact that everyone remembers where they were and how they felt (I was at work and I mainly felt disbelief – but I had the luxury of being at the other end of the binoculars almost from the start) shows that there is no healing. There is only going on and trying to make some adjustment for this tragedy that is now part of our national make-up.

I still don’t really know why we were attacked – all I can see is that a fanatical group from an oppressive society uses religion to explain/condone/promote the oppression…and fights against anyone or anything that would promote a differing view. We are a symbol of freedom (although that is sometimes an illusion – see: Patriot Act). I don’t understand what point was made. If we ever claimed to be invincible as a nation, I missed it. Anyone, anywhere can be targeted. But then, I don’t understand anyone who pursues power for the sake of being powerful. I think that just makes you an asshole.

Rambling a bit, and mostly pointless – I guess that’s what I have to say about Sept. 11

12 Amy { 09.07.11 at 12:13 pm }

My husband and I were just talking about this the other day. About how we will always remember where we were and what we were doing when the news came. One thing I wonder about is what my daughter will be taught about that day in school. Will it be just another date in her history book? Will she ever truly understand the gravity of what occurred? Probably not…but I intend to take her to the new museum and the memorial when she’s old enough.

13 loribeth { 09.07.11 at 1:39 pm }

There is lots I could say about Sept. 11th 10 years later — but I did want to say thank you for your words about mourning & timetables — as applicable to those of us who have lost babies (or anyone else in our lives) as much as to those who lost loved ones that day.

We were watching the news the other night, & they were interviewing a 9/11 widow. She was tearing up & crying on camera, & the reporter said, almost incredulously, “It still hurts that much?” Well, duh.

14 HereWeGoAJen { 09.07.11 at 2:00 pm }

I don’t know what I need to say. I think I’ve said it already, in past years. This year I am thinking I just need to remember.

15 Erica { 09.07.11 at 2:00 pm }

I love what you say about healing and mourning here, Mel. I mainly know about mourning from the perspective of infant death, but one of the most helpful things for me was hearing, from my husband’s friend who is a psychiatrist, that it takes parents about 5 years to incorporate the loss of a child into their lives, and that that’s just an average number, and that sometimes it takes longer, and that sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Our ability to form deep connections to others seems to be such an important part of what makes us human. I wish we had more patience and awareness (individually and societally) for what can happen when our connections are severed.

I worry a lot about what happened after September 11 – that we as a nation may have focused more on the fear and anger than the mourning – possibly because fear and anger were more politically useful, but also possibly because fear and anger are the parts of grief that it’s easier to label, talk about, and address. That’s a muddle, but I guess it’s what I have to say.

16 stephanie { 09.07.11 at 3:57 pm }

When I was 25, childless, unmarried (though in a relationship) and on the cusp of my 26th birthday, I watched in a sad silence with a very defensive shell. I cried, but in private and when I thought no one was paying attention. I could not bear the images of loved ones walking around with their little word document “Missing” flyers, but I pretended that it didn’t cut me to the bone. Now, however, I make no apologies for the fact that I find it utterly, awfully, horribly sad that so many people died. So many children lost parents, so many parents lost children. So many siblings lost siblings. If I cry on Sunday, I won’t even pretend to hide it. Though, I’m not sure how I feel about the name “Patriot Day,” which is how the day is listed in my Google calendar. I bristle whenever I hear the word “patriot.” I’d really rather it be called “Remembrance Day” or some such thing.

17 Tigger { 09.07.11 at 4:10 pm }

Chickenpig, thank you. I really didn’t want to be the first one to stand up and say “Really, please stop shoving it in my face. It happened, people died, we’ve changed. Reliving it over and over will not help.” The Oklahoma bombing – do we make that day sacred? No. Where was the 10 year anniversary mark for that? It was the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil until 9/11…and yet it’s not even talked about anymore, although it may make history books.

What seriously irks me is that 9/11 stuff has been in my news feed every day since mid-AUGUST. Yes, August. Now…getting closer to the date, I could see it popping up. But there’s been no less than 3 articles daily that appear in my feed. STOP ALREADY. Over-saturation does nothing. It’s like the over-played song on the radio that you causes you to change the channel when you hear it start to play. I almost didn’t come over to this thread, but I did because it’s Mel and I wanted to see what she said.

And before anyone thinks I’m callous: I’m not. I feel for the people who lost loved ones, or who almost did. The people who were nearby. The survivors. I don’t, however, think we are doing any favors by constantly bringing it up. They aren’t being allowed to move on with their lives because they will always be “the person who survived” or “the person who lost X to the towers/plane”. On my FB a friend linked a film of messages, texts, etc., from people who were inside the tower to their loved ones outside. He feels it violates the privacy of the people – those who made it out can give permission, but the dead can’t. And this sort of thing – a film? really? of their voice mails? – bugs the hell out of me because I feel we are sensationalizing it, trying to profit from it. Let the people live their lives, let them try to heal, stop poking them.

18 Devon { 09.07.11 at 4:52 pm }

I have no idea what to say about 9/11. There is and always will be before 9/11 and after 9/11, just like for me there is always before my dad’s cancer and after we found out. It’s a defining moment in people’s lives. Just like the attack on Pearl Harbor, or the day Kennedy was assasinated. I think that whether or not we’re “tired” of hearing about we need to recognize that many many people lost their lives that day, and many many others lost loved ones, and that’s not something that people will get over. I worked right across from the Pentagon, and could see and smell the smoke. I lost no loved ones that day, but later found out that an old friend from High school had died in that building, and 2 of my close friends did several tours in Iraq.

I think that the remembering and the “hype” can help people heal, or at the very least, lets them know that their loved one is remembered. I always hear people say about loss, that people don’t talk about their loved one because they don’t want to make them sad, but for most people dealing with loss, they are always thinking of their loved one, and talking about them helps them to know that other people are to. They are not forgotten.

19 Marissa { 09.07.11 at 7:40 pm }

Living out west during the attack and now (although I did live in CT for 3 years)…I pretty much feel like this: I don’t know anyone who died in the attacks. I don’t know anyone who personally lost someone they were close to. I know people who have died in Afganistan, and I know many, many people who have lost people in Iraq and Afganistan.

I also don’t think we were attacked because we’re a “symbol of freedom”. I think we were attacked because we’re very large, the biggest supporters of Israel, and have armies in places that other people do not condone. The people who died in the attacks are (I assume) innocent. We as a nation are not. We’ve killed more people since 9/11 than died that die, and lost more of our citizens than we lost that day.

Maybe I would feel differently if I had been living on the East Coast, and if I wasn’t dating a first-generation Egyptian American at the time and witnesses the disgusting things people (wearing flag pins or with Yay-USA stickers on their cars…) said to him and did to his family (and they’re Copts, not even Muslims, so, really?)

I don’t think we “deserved” 9/11. And I think people who died deserve to be remembered, by people who loved them. But I get irritated at what comes across as self-indulgence on behalf of our news outlets and people who didn’t actually suffer a personal loss acting like it was a sacred happening.

20 luna { 09.08.11 at 4:47 am }

this is beautiful. I especially love the last para.

I don’t need to see the footage again, the photos, the reactions. but I admit I am compelled by the stories of rebuilding, of rebirth, of healing in whatever form.

two stories in particular stick out in my mind. one was captured in a documentary about the building of the memorial. incredibly powerful.

the second was about a survivor, a woman who was burned over 80% of her body and clinging to life for months. she tried for 7 yrs after to have a child until a surrogate gave birth to her son 2 yrs ago. of all the things she said 9/11 took from her, the ability to build her family was the most profound. now her family is complete, and she feels “healed.”

21 April { 09.08.11 at 9:05 am }

I’m with chickenpig and Tigger. I’ve had severe emotional trauma in my life, and sometimes it’s excruciatingly painful dealing with common, everyday triggers. If I had to deal with explicit reminders for weeks leading up to the anniversary, and then an incredible media deluge on the actual anniversary, there’s no way I could have any sort of actual healing. A year is nothing when it comes to something like this, not nearly long enough to manage the salt rubbed in the wounds and work through confusing emotions and thoughts. It’s too soon. At first, I’m sure this helped the people it was going to help, but those people have found their new equilibrium. Now, ten years later, is the time for compassion for those who have not, those whose are unable to get their lives back on track until October, November, even December or later, every single year. We can remember, but quietly, without the fanfare, without the massive buildup to the one huge day of memories, because for some, that day has swallowed everything, and while they’ll never get it all back, we don’t have to show them what they lost again and again, every year, ad infinitum.

22 Delenn { 09.08.11 at 10:07 am }

Love the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post and comments. Me, living in New England makes it seem more “real” especially since I was “aquaintenced” with people directly affected. I do feel that the phrase “Nine Eleven” has been tarnished by needless division and war. I feel that there is a need in the country for a day of reflection–but as usual, in this country, it can be overdone.

I will probably watch one program about it. And then I will reflect and think of those affected more directly. And then I will do what we all have had to do–move on to the march of time.

23 Roccie { 09.09.11 at 9:50 pm }

This post was a challenging read. I have been burying my thoughts and pushing away my emotions in response to the upcoming date. Thanks for posing such hard questions to help me rip off the scab.

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