The faces around the circle were worn and tired. Some of the approximately 30 men and women were still in shock, unable to comprehend the planes that struck the World Trade Center had vaporized their respective spouses, children, parents, or siblings. It was nearly two years after Sept. 11, 2001 exploded our concept of what "normal, everyday life" was "supposed" to be. You probably remember although, like childbirth, it's easier when the details are blurry.
Having experienced direct loss of a loved one in the attack, many of the people attending the group session at South Nassau Communities Hospital's WTC Family Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y. were continuing to re-experience the events of that day in excruciating detail. Some reported insomnia and nightmares; others were living with intrusive flashbacks, an exaggerated startle response, and an edgy need to avoid any people, places, or images that would flood them with the neurochemistry of post-traumatic pain.
Ken Druck, a psychologist from San Diego whose expertise is helping families recover from traumatic losses, had flown in to lead the group. I was attending as a member of the staff, as I was then directing a program for teenagers and young adults who lost a parent on 9/11. Ken opened by thanking each member of the group for being present. We sat in silence for those who had died. Before going around the circle, Ken told us what had brought him here.
On March 27, 1996, Ken and his wife learned that their 21-year-old daughter Jenna had been killed in a bus accident in India, just moments away from reaching the Taj Mahal. "My daughter spent her last day on the Ganges watching the sunrise, and because of an overbooked flight, they put 27 kids on a bus leaving Delhi, going to Accra, on one of the most treacherous roads in the world... where 1,600 people die every year," he said. "I received the phone call that is every parent's worst nightmare. My world and every cell of my being were turned inside out. I experienced deep, deep trauma that so many people fight to live through."
He founded The Jenna Druck Center and "Families Helping Families," a not-for-profit organization that has so far helped more than 5,000 families. "I have had the honor of being able to help families everywhere, in New York after 9/11, in Colorado, and in New Orleans after Katrina," he said. "They have taught me so much about love that is indestructible."
Ken has spent the past 2.5 years putting those life lessons into a new book: The Real Rules of Life: Balancing Life's Terms with Your Own. I caught up with him as he was preparing to reconnect with the families of 9/11 at next Tuesday's memorial ceremony at Ground Zero. "In this book, I am intentionally putting together everything I felt would be necessary and helpful to somebody who had either suffered a life loss, literally lost the life of someone they love, or to be helpful to someone who is suffering a living loss," he said. (Parents whose children are lost in the world of drugs or crime would be considered to be suffering a living loss.)
Like life itself, The Real Rules of Life is not for the chickens. Starting with Real Rule #1: Life is not fair, Ken walks the reader through 23 Real Rules, ending with Real Rule #23: Your life is your birthright.
When tragedy strikes, as it does to most of us at some time during our walk through this lifetime, it can be helpful to have a guide who has navigated the burned-out landscape of lost hopes and dreams, for he or she will show you how to find distinguishing landmarks that point the way to solace. As Ken would be the first one to say, "There are no shortcuts, no magic bullets, and no quick fixes."
This is an honest guide to the seasons of true hardship.
Take Real Rule #13: Real Value Has No Dollar Signs. "We have the illusion that somehow if we amass a certain amount of wealth, status, or power, it makes us immune and exempt from the downside of life. Nothing can be farther from the truth," he said. "There are no 'get-out-of-jail-free' cards. Misfortune visits everyone. No one escapes."
Yet, in the process of going through the stages of shock and mourning, it is possible to find new reserves of strength, courage, and honesty. "Adversity is sometimes the way by which we experience our true wealth or true worth. We shouldn't have to be diagnosed with something serious or lose a child or a job, but sometimes that is what it takes," Ken said.
After standing in the presence of thousands of people who are "in the ashes of Plan A," he has found that, "the least relevant thing in the world at that moment is how much money they have."
The traumatized family members in our circle had not experienced losing their homes and possessions due to an act of natural or manmade destruction. "They still had all their stuff but they were missing someone at the dinner table," he said. "And all the stuff that people amassed was irrelevant in comparison."
The Real Rules offers no panacea. Nor are they intended to do so. "There is no glass half-full or half-empty. It is both half-full and half-empty," Ken said. "The way that we honestly heal and process things and grow spiritually from our wounds is by having a work ethic and the courage to get through the tough times without putting a psychological, spiritual, or emotional spin on it. We have to honor what we have lost and we have to stand in it with a lot of love and support."