In everyone’s life, there are incidents that are completely unforgettable. They are so stunning that they mark a before and an after that some people will always remember.
Some of these events are personal and others are cultural.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the 1960s, the killings of four Kent State University students in the 1970s, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in the 1980s, Princess Diana’s untimely death in the 1990s—and many, many other cultural events—rocked the United States and some people in other countries during the 20th century. Such important occurrences are called significant emotional events, and they change us in often unnamed but deeply felt ways.
Among such cultural events in the 21st century are the four terrorist attacks on the United States using America’s own airlines and killing scores in the air and on the ground. September 11, 2001, a day of astonishment, horror, and deep grief.
In these attacks, commonly called 9/11, first responders—particularly firefighters—sustained losses of friends, family, colleagues, and peers in numbers previously unimaginable. First responders I interviewed for Duty, Honor, Hope: Strategies for Understanding and Unpacking First Responder Grief frequently called out the 343 firefighters, 71 law enforcement officers, 55 military personnel, and a United States Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement officer who were killed. I began to understand the 343 as an entity not only of firefighters but of all first responders.
However they are numbered, first responders comprised a tragically high number of people trained to serve and save who died in the line of duty on and around 9/11.
How first responders handle grief is a big subject, the topic of my book as told by numerous first responders themselves. Talking about and referring to their 9/11 losses is one way they both acknowledge the grief (and anger) of loss while also deflecting their feelings about that tragic day and the multiple death losses they have sustained over the years. When they do talk about grief and loss, often with a noticeable catch in their voices and tears in their eyes, they are mourning. Talking about one’s grief, even in deflected ways, is a type of mourning activity that can lead to unpacking some old, painful grief that gets in the way of living life fully in the present.
As we come around again to 9/11, I see that an entire generation is growing up relatively unaware of the very date’s importance as the day America was attacked with its own people as fodder. This current generation may be unaware of the 343 as well as the many other first responders and innocent citizens who died that day and in the days and years after. 9/11 is not this generation’s significant emotional event. They have different griefs to mourn.
But for first responders, even the newest of them, 9/11 marks a day of sorrow that can never fully be reclaimed for happiness—even if some of the pain softens over the years. First responders tend to have long collective memories. They compartmentalize and pack away their pain in order to move on to the next critical event, but 9/11 hasn’t really faded in their minds. And, as the years pass and those first responders directly involved in 9/11 retire, the daily critical events of their vocation aren’t there to call their attention away from the stacked-up grief that has accumulated over the years and that is epitomized by the annual return of the 11th of September.
Let’s remember and honor the 343, 71, 55, and 1, as well as the myriad civilians and service members who died during and after 9/11 because of 9/11. Let’s listen thoughtfully as they share their stories—if they choose to share them—to support them in healing, knowing that this day will always be a significant emotional event for them.
To learn more about the grief of first responders and how to help them acknowledge their losses and heal, get a hardbound or ebook copy of Duty, Honor, Hope: Strategies for Understanding and Unpacking First Responder Grief.