Identities changed instantly for the families and loved ones of those who perished on September 11th. How would we tell the story? How could we both honor the dead and illuminate the heroic actions of those who responded.
No one imagined two immense towers falling, a direct attack on Washington, or a cornfield ablaze.
In 2002, the Smithsonian American Museum of National History opened one of the first September 11th exhibitions on the first anniversary of the attacks. It was vital that the families and loved ones of those who died on that day be included in the planning of the exhibition as well as be the first to see the actual exhibition. This protocol has been followed at the September 11th Museum opened in lower Manhattan.
For some, today is as painful and raw as it was almost thirteen years ago. Family support, to companion those who will never cease feeling the loss and grief, is always part of the pre-planning and implementation of the day. Recruiting and screening emotional and spiritual care professionals -- those who have actually dealt with mass fatality and loss -- is vital. Hospice and Military chaplains, healthcare, police and fire chaplains, local clergy as well as mental health professionals and social workers who have actually dealt with death and dying, traumatic crisis and death, those who have dealt with the spiritually injured, those who have suddenly experienced deep psychological wounds, nightmares of the soul.
At that first anniversary family 'preview' in Washington, paired with a mental health professional, some observations were made. For family members, it was important to get the story 'right'. There had been time for anger and profound grief, questioning, and ambiguity --so many what if's -- and all who sought counsel wisely learned that there was no rational way to grieve, no logical way to mourn, no timetable for getting better or over such catastrophic loss. The least others could do was to get the story accurate. Curators labored over what to include or not, how to design a living memorial that could commemorate the lives of those lost as well as educate future generations about the significance of that day.
Well-intended curatorial decisions needed to be made and changed, adaptable... how could one list a specific number of victims on a plane, without considering the intense criminal action, the terror of last moments and murder, those could no longer be considered acts of human beings but sub-human animals. The day before, those killed were vibrant passengers who loved and led productive lives and community roles, and, then there were the hijackers who, by their acts, ceased to be defined as human. Family activists insisted on getting the story of that day right. It was an important consolation. Help us tell our truth.
Staffing for these family and friends events oftentimes needs to be subtle and unconscious. You don't have to walk through a gateway of ambulances to convey that help is there if you need it. For those in charge, one does not have to have visible clinical lab coats and chaplains' wearing crosses and collars. You're there as a non-anxious presence, an observer, a resource, a consultant. If someone collapses, there's an available medical response for the physical --hitting one's head, fainting, or just to help assess the medical issue. For deep emotional outbursts or those who seek the company of their Rabbi or Priest, there may be initial chaplain resources that can provide support and a transition to the family faith group community leader. Prepare for anything that may occur after the safety and security of those present is provided.
Several other observations. These exhibition spaces are sacred ground for many families and loved ones. What is displayed are part of sacred vestments; shoes lost, vests worn, hats dented. Any museum or exhibition may be painfully inadequate to ever convey the depth of pain and loss experienced immediately and over time. Having Kleenex tissue is both wise and ridiculous. Am I supposed to cry? Why can't I cry? Though better to have than not to have. The museum is also a tomb. You should not have to pay to go to the cemetery. To put flowers on the 'grave'. Remember how much has already been paid.
Am I safe at this exhibition? Am I safe from unwanted offers of support or prayer? Am I safe from predators? Am I safe from those who have infiltrated this holy space and now have intense emotional issues of their own only to prey upon others as 'experts' or 'helpers' who know exactly how you are feeling and have all the answers. That's why they're there and nothing can stop them from helping you now -- the ones who have experienced such catastrophic loss, that has been magnified and broadcast time and time over the world and to those dealing with their own emotional and spiritual health issues.
Not everyone crying around you is an immediate family member or loved one. The person you may be seeking to support may distract you from your intended client. Memorials can become magnets for the dysfunctional. Pre-existing emotional and spiritual wounds can be exacerbated within the general public near and far, and, they travel. Those who are homeless before the disaster are homeless after the disaster. Shelter may be immediate and temporary, and not a long-term solution.
Be prepared for anything. There are so many who need help. Each event. Each anniversary. And, at any time triggered.
Best practices ask that we moderate our viewing, our exposure, to the horrific images and trauma of that day, although scenes of the new September 11th museum are visible to accurately tell the unimaginable horror of that day. There are marked exits for those who may become overwhelmed with sounds and images of that day. I may not visit the museum in the near future. I taught at BMCC. My classroom was destroyed when 7 WTC fell. There are others who believe that it is imperative to nationally rebroadcast the news coverage of September 11th every anniversary so that one may never forget. And, stay vigilant and resilient as well as prepare for what might never have been imagined. The public memorial has opened; personal memorials have existed from that day. All over the world.