It Takes a Long, Long Time

Jessie Flynn, writer and life coach shares a very poignant real life story about the grief of one family after 9/11, and explains what grief is like when there has been a traumatic loss and how to cope with it.

by Jessie Flynn

At six a.m. on September 11, Keith Coleman kissed his wife Elodie goodbye and sped to the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald at the World Trade Center. At 8:30 a.m. a neighbor called to tell Elodie to turn on the TV. The World Trade Center had just been hit by a plane.

Four days later I visited Elodie at her home. She hadn’t heard from Keith since that conversation and sat, looking pale and zombie-like, on a couch. Her right hand clutched a cell phone, her left hand—a carved memento of their love. She sat waiting for a call. Any call. One that would tell her that Keith was alive. That a miracle had happened.

In another room, her five-month-old baby Neva napped. Her brother Vaughn, just turned two, played down the hall. Relatives and friends rallied around the young mother. Her family came in droves to man the homestead. Keith’s mother and father arrived from Connecticut to await “the miracle.” Elodie waited for Keith, and the senior Colemans held vigil for Keith and their other son, Scott. Both boys worked side by side on the 104th floor.

Together everyone waited, praying for the news of Keiths' rescue. Against all odds, they held onto hope. In spite of probability, they believed the boys would be saved. For three weeks, they waited…until officials painfully declared the end of rescue operations.

Denial is a powerful thing. In a way it is a beautiful gift that allows the mind and heart some space in which to adjust to loss. After all, the human psyche can stand so much at once. Perhaps, at that time, denial became Elodie’s best friend.

Now, several months later, no such buffer remains. Oh, at times it creeps in and shows its existence when Keith is mentioned in the present tense, or in the memorial pamphlet which listed his birth date and omitted September 11, 2001. But that dark day did happen. Keith and Scott are dead. That is the reality. Unfortunately, the mourning has begun.

Almost immediately, our government tells us to get on with our lives as normally as possible. Alas, those who grieve cannot. Elodie and her family waited and waited to learn of their losses. We, too, must wait patiently as they heal. The emotional wounds are deep. Injuries such as these do not heal quickly. It takes a very long time. Our society needs to know and respect this.

Words of patriotism rally us to unite. We eagerly seek information about the war’s progress. Yet while we do this, I fervently hope that a greater understanding of the process of healing from loss through death arises out of the ashes of this horrid tragedy. We need to learn normal grief reactions. We need to look death squarely in the eyes and discover how to live. We need to do these things in order to be a compassionate, kind and loving presence for the many people who have and will experience the death of someone they love.

I want to tell Elodie, her family, and all those who mourn, so many things…facts and ideas that will help them get through the days ahead.

They would do well to treat themselves with gentleness, heeding their inner voices rather than the three-days-and-get-on-with-life dictates of our culture. The emotional wounds they’ve sustained require lots of rest, nutritious food, easy exercise, and the support of people who care. They have entered a “pamper period of self-protection.” No doubt they feel numb and can’t believe what has happened. Perhaps they even feel separate from others—that lonely-in-the-crowd sensation that says, “no one really understands what I am feeling.” Shock gives way to the question "why?" “Why did my loved one die? Why then? Why did it happen this way?” These are difficult questions, and they can only be answered with time.

Initially, people keep themselves ultra-busy, tending to legal and business matters. But eventually activity gives way to experiencing the pain of loss, especially in those quiet moments. Feelings come—unexpected, uninvited, and seemingly at the most inconvenient times. Addressing them, rather than running away from them, is the healthiest way to heal. Naming them—fear, anger, guilt, sadness, confusion, loneliness—takes away some of their power. And then dealing with them also helps—facing the fear, releasing the anger, crying in the sadness, making lists when confused, reaching out for company. Guilt seems to be the toughest emotion. But no one has a crystal ball to tell the future, and, truth is, we all do the best we can, given what we know. Often working on forgiving self, not others, proves most challenging. I want to reassure Elodie that having these feelings is normal and to please, please, please pay attention to them.

This first-year period of loss can be fraught with disorganization and forgetfulness as well. That’s why sticking to a daily schedule, making lists, putting off major decisions, and asking for help becomes crucial. Getting a head-to-toe physical after the first six months also is a must. And it comforts to seek guidance from others who have lost—individuals, professional counselors, or a support group.

The list of coping ideas can go on and on. Most important, families who grieve need to be able to talk about their person who died. They yearn to hear that person’s name mentioned. Their low spirits are buoyed by stories and anecdotes about how their loved one’s life touched others’ lives. Photos, videos, letters, and even articles of clothing will help them remember their person. Remembering and giving that life significance becomes everything.

I often hear the plea, “Will I ever be the same?” And to that I respond, “No. Your life will be different, but it can be good again…if you choose.” Perhaps it doesn’t seem possible right now. But I encourage those who mourn to trust. Trust the process of grieving and healing. Know, deep inside, that gradually life will get better. The raw wounds and pain will become less acute.

Naturally, none of this is easy. Grieving is hard work. In Keith Coleman’s firm alone, 677 employees died, leaving behind 1,463 children without one parent. Staggering numbers. At times the pain of this tragedy seems insufferable.

Fortunately, the good news is that down this very long road of grief, life will become precious again. Indeed, there is no cheap grace. Those who walk this journey can grow more beautiful in kindness, compassion, understanding, wisdom, and love. They give living testimony to the sadness of all life. They are our torchbearers.

For this gift, we give them thanks. We also might remember to be patient as they take their long, long time to heal.

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