September 11th began like any other day with my clock radio signaling the arrival of 5a.m. Awakened, I lay quietly, pinned to the mattress by the darkness and the early hour. When I finally became aware of the voice on the radio it was not Bob Edwards talking about U.S. unemployment rates, it was a man from the BBC babbling almost incoherently about a building on fire and smoke and the World Trade Center. But wait! Another building has been bombed! No! It is not a bomb; it's a jet!! A JET HAS CRASHED INTO THE WORLD TRADE CENTER TOWER! Still listening to the radio, I got up and dressed and left the house. By the time I arrived at the lodge where I work, the Pentagon had also been hit. I moved around the kitchen, dazed. It wasn't until the men sat down to eat and I told them, "The World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been hit by hijacked planes," that the reality of what had happened that morning hit me like a blow to the stomach. We turned on the television and watched the plane hit the tower over and over again, and tried to make sense of a scene very much like one we've seen a thousand times in Hollywood action films, but never never in real life.
The grief reaction of our nation has been immense and it is the grief that has brought light to the total darkness of the devastation. I heard stories on NPR about people staggering through the streets of New York only to be approached by strangers wanting to help. One man, crying because he couldn't find a co-worker, passed a group of divinity school students singing hymns on the sidewalk. When they saw him, they encircled him, held him in their arms and prayed with him. Others passing by joined the group, added to the strength of the embrace and shared their grief. Hearing this, I smiled through my tears. Many times I've talked to people who would like to support a grieving friend, but don't know what to do. I've tried to encourage and reassure them by saying, "Maybe you don't need to do anything. There can be great comfort in simply being there and bearing witness to another's pain." The people of New York City and Washington, D.C., have been living examples of this as they've reached out to each other and held on, heart to heart.
Much of our grief can be empathetic; we put ourselves in the shoes of those most impacted by the tragedy. We think about the pain that would accompany a phone call from a loved one trapped on a hijacked plane. But some of the grief may be for ourselves, for past losses. It is not uncommon for people confronted by death to feel an old loss anew. I remember attending a memorial service for a casual acquaintance five months after my own significant loss and sobbing throughout the slide show and eulogies. I felt ashamed because I knew my tears were for Jon and not for Scott. My reaction was a normal one; it is healthy to acknowledge the pain of those past losses and let the feelings move through us.
Tangible losses are often accompanied by symbolic or secondary losses. When we lose a spouse we lose much more than just a life partner. Our grief will encompass the loss of a lifestyle, the hopes and dreams you had as a couple, the future you planned together, the status of being a married person. Our nation's grief is not just for the dead, it's for the loss of our innocence. No longer can we live as though nothing bad can ever happen in America. Our lives have been changed forever. It will be difficult to feel safe again. The days of carefree travel will be over for some time, if not forever. I wonder how I will feel the next time I board an aircraft and strap that seatbelt across my lap.
The acts of terrorism we witnessed two weeks ago have forced us to think about what is important in our lives. A recent e-mail from my brother offered the sentiment that he would never again take another day for granted. It should not take a tragedy to break us open to the preciousness of life, but that we can be broken open is, for me, a sign of our innate compassion and brings me hope.
Mary Cook is a Hospice volunteer who divides her time between Juneau and Gustavus.