Post-Sept. 11: Counselors talk about coping

Oct. 11 marked four weeks since terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into landmark buildings in New York and Washington, D.C. -- and the Pennsylvania countryside -- killing thousands. The one-month anniversary of the events that changed the world is, according to most mental health professionals, only the first of what will be many traumatic "anniversaries" of the tragic events of Sept. 11.

This week's airstrikes on Afghanistan will only add to the collective psyche of being "at war" and will undoubtedly bring up a whole new range of emotions, but local counselors have been seeing the psychological fallout from what's come to be known simply as 9/11 ever since that day -- and it's not likely to fade any time soon.

"It comes up every day," says psychologist Lynnea Lindsey of Gorge Counseling and Treatment Services. "It's affecting all ages, across the board." Along with sadness and fear, Lindsey says many people remain in a state of "hyper-vigilance" as a result of the unprecedented attacks.

"People are constantly scanning the environment for clues -- looking to see if it's going to happen again," she says. "People have a stronger startle response." Lindsey noticed it herself the other day when she was suddenly distracted by two helicopters flying up the Gorge -- something she previously wouldn't even have noticed.

Lindsey says that the terrorist attacks have affected the psyche of Americans in a different way than other tragedies -- even those that have killed Americans -- because of the vast uncertainties they've left in their wake.

"There's the grief of the trauma, and then there's the sustained stress of what comes next, when is next, who is next," Lindsey says. "Single events -- earthquakes, floods, accidents -- can be processed. What's more difficult about this is the sense of sustained trauma, that we don't get to put it to rest."

Gary Young, chaplain at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, concurs.

"This was a change event, a life event," he says. "This is something that people will carry with them." He says it's also different in that it's "massive."

"It's hard for us to comprehend. We're always going to have trouble comprehending," he says. The number of deaths in the Twin Towers collapse alone, he adds, is like the population of Hood River being wiped out.

Lindsey and Young both stress that people should confront their feelings about the attacks -- and that it's normal to have strong emotions about the events and to continue to have them.

"Our own feelings and experiences of this are very legitimate," Lindsey says -- even if we didn't have an immediate connection with victims of the attacks.

"Even if it wasn't personal, it was personal," she says. "It's not six degrees of separation, it's more like two or three." Along with the enormous loss of life the attacks also, in the span of a couple of hours, altered how we look at our world.

"It shattered our view that we live in a safe, secure environment," she says.

According to Lindsey and Young, not everyone will process the events at the same pace -- and that's okay.

"It becomes a problem only when it disrupts someone's work, relationships, social life," Lindsey says. "When it disrupts the ability to function on a day-to-day basis." For people really struggling with their grief from 9/11, she recommends talking to clergy, a grief support group or a mental health professional.

"Use whatever resources are out there," she says.

According to Lindsey, an event of this magnitude also can "shake loose other stuff" -- such as memories of old traumas or unresolved personal issues.

"It's also a time of rethinking certain things," she says. "People are saying, `Do I really want to be married to this person?' or `Do I really want this job?'" She says these are normal reactions to an event that has "shifted the paradigm."

"It's a benchmark of being changed," she says. "We are reframing things -- looking at how we fit into this picture."

Young recommends approaching the events of 9/11 in the same way as the death of a family member or close friend -- by going through the necessary grieving process.

"We need to admit that we are grieving," he says. "Spend some time with it." Young outlines the five basic steps in the grieving process: recognizing our feelings; acceptance; finding meaning and coming to grips with a new reality; redefining our values; letting go and moving on.

"As a people, we are not used to grieving," he says. "Maybe for the first time in our country's life, we have national grieving going on."

Lindsey says it normally takes a full year for the first grief cycle to take place. "Every mark -- one month, Christmas, six months -- will have an effect," she says. At Christmas, for example, some people might react emotionally to the thought of all the children of victims who no longer have their mother or father.

"It's like these little slide shows go through our head," she says. "As a country, this whole next year is going to be a challenge."

Young agrees, adding that "grief is something that just washes over us.

"We just have to go through it," he says. "We just have to go through it."

Latest stories

Latest video:

Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

Log in to comment

News from our Community Partners