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Anniversary Self-Aid and Buddy Care For Those who Helped


Jeffrey T. Mitchell, Ph.D., CTS

August 20, 2002

About a week ago I completed an article entitled “The Anniversary Dilemma.” It went out on ICISF’s web site. It was a set of guidelines for helping (but not over helping) communities, survivors, victims and bereaved to deal with the intensity of anniversary events, particularly September 11. ICISF, almost immediately, received many requests to put together a similar set of guidelines to assist those who had helped out in so many ways that they would be too numerous to describe here. This article is a response to the many requests that have come into ICISF.

1. For those who lost colleagues in a tragedy, the anniversary can be

a very difficult time. The time period shortly after the loss is a

time of shock, numbness and bewilderment. In the next few

months the reality of the loss begins to set in. The person is

missed and there are periods of distress intermingled with periods

of relative calm. Grief, sadness and regrets are common.

Generalized anxiety about one’s owns well being, specific fears

and stress reactions are also common. Memories, dreams and

thoughts of the dead person can intrude at any time. Frustration

and anger over some aspect of the loss can also take up a person’s

energy. As the anniversary approaches those feelings, memories,

thoughts and dreams can become intensified.

2. An important anniversary is not a date so much as it is a period of

time. Generally the anniversary period begins several weeks and

sometimes a month or so before the actual date and trails off for

several weeks after the anniversary date. Many people are

surprised by the length of time that an anniversary of a significant

event can take. Although uncomfortable and sometimes quite

painful, the length of the anniversary period should not be

surprising. Remember, the intensity of the feelings generated by

an anniversary and the length of time the anniversary period lasts

is usually in proportion to the importance of the person in your life.

Look at discomfort at anniversary times as a personal tribute to the

colleagues you miss so much because they were so important in

your life.

3. For those who were involved in the search and recovery efforts at

the World Trade Center the anniversary period can be particularly

distressing because they were so caught up in the operation that

they had to postpone much of their normal grief reactions. A

delayed grief reaction does not mean that a person can escape his

or her grief. There is a price to pay for the delay. In fact, most

people report that they were surprised by just how powerful the

grief was that overtook them at anniversary times. For a few, the

grief reaction can be powerful enough to disrupt their work and

home performance.

4. Around the United States and even in other countries, many people

have attempted to use the emergency services and military

personnel to express their shock and grief over the September 11th

attacks. That is natural. Those people represent the closest the

general public can come to the “front lines” of the war on

terrorism. They have made unwilling “heroes” out of emergency

and military personnel. They focus their attention on them; wine

them and dine them; give them awards and honors and include

them in programs and ceremonies where they have been previously

overlooked or even ignored. Many have cried on the shoulders of

emergency personnel even when those emergency personnel may

have had little or nothing to do with the actual search and rescue

operations. Personnel in New York City, in particular, had to

maintain that strong outer appearance for the people who came

with flowers and candles to their police and fire stations. The

public does not want their “heroes” to be sad and grieving. The

public wants to cheer up fire, police, emergency medical and

military personnel. They want to make them feel better. If they

believe that they can be successful in that endeavor then they can

feel more secure in this very insecure world. They want them to be

strong and ready for action should it be necessary. Unwittingly,

the public may have contributed to the delayed grief reactions that

many operations personnel are now experiencing. There is no

malice here. It is the best a frightened public can do. In the

American Civil War the public cheered as soldiers paraded by on

their way to battle and tied yellow ribbons around trees as they

waited for the war’s end and the return of their soldiers. They are

doing today what the public has done for thousands of years. They

urge courage, strength and stamina in their front line protectors so

they can feel safer in their own worlds. It is the best they know

how to do. They mean no harm.

5. Avoidance is very common around anniversary times. Some

people, especially those who have recently entered into a delayed

grief reaction, will do everything they can to avoid ceremonies and

programs associated with the anniversary. They fear that they will

be overwhelmed by such ceremonies. Such fear is natural. In

some cases attendance at a ceremony will be mandated by the

organization. Do the best you can under those circumstances.

Keep in mind that ceremonies can help to move the healing

process along and do not necessarily have to overwhelm if a

person has a positive attitude. A positive attitude is one that looks

at attendance at a ceremony as a way to honor the memory of those

who have been killed or wounded. In some cases people will be

given an option regarding their attendance at an anniversary

ceremony. People should consider attending very seriously before

making the decision. There may be hidden benefits to attendance.

6. If a person decides that they cannot attend an optional ceremony

their decision needs to be respected. Every person deals with their

loss in their own way and on their own time frame. Remember,

many of you who helped out got wounded internally yourselves.

You may need time to heal and sometimes people cannot face

anniversaries very well when they are feeling the pain of their


7. Do not be talked into doing things which go against your internal

feelings. For example, I was asked to be a speaker at a memorial

program on September 11. My internal sense said that the

organizers were going in the wrong direction. They wanted to

invite every emergency person they knew (and many they did not)

to the ceremony so that “heroes” would be on site during the

program. The anniversary is not about us. It is about those who

died or were wounded. It is about their families. It is about the

losses America has suffered as a nation. I was very concerned

with their approach and said no to the invitation even though there

was considerable pressure being exerted on me to comply.

8. Some people need to be in a quiet place away from others and they

need to reflect on their personal experience of the loss. Others will

choose to be around friends and family. Others prefer to be with

their coworkers. A few people want to attend every ceremony or

program that is available in their area. Some simply want to go

away. They are worn out by a year full of reports about the

tragedy. Others choose to work and keep busy. Some want to talk

about it, others do not. There is no one way to deal with the pain

of an anniversary. Choose your best personal plan.

9. Do not be afraid to tell those you care about that you love them and

that you care for them. We are in a war and just about anything

may happen. Even if we were not in a war, just about anything can


10. Look out for one another. If someone you work with does not

seem themselves or they are hurting, please offer a listening ear

and a kind heart. A little listening goes a long, long way.

11. Spend time with friends and family, love your children and care for

them. Read, think, pray, play. Do anything that works for you.

An anniversary of a tragedy is a significant occurrence.

Remembering, grieving, feeling, honoring the dead and wounded

are all important aspects of our lives. Likewise, growing,

rebuilding, looking forward and participating in daily life are also

important. Anniversaries should be lived through with dignity and

honor. They should not become emotional swamps that swallow

us and cause us to cease living healthy and productive lives. We

do not honor the memory of our dead by ceasing to live own

ourselves. We honor them by choosing to live life better because

of them.

12. For those who have worked directly with the tragic events, they

hold membership in a special club. Their memories may be

somber around the anniversary. They should not forget, however,

that they have had the privilege of working side by side with some

of the finest people the world has to offer. They should entwine

those positive memories of team work and personal sacrifice in

with the sad feelings generated by the anniversary period. You and

they have given gifts and each has received gifts by the work you

have done in the aftermath of the tragedy.

13. People may need a referral for additional support if the distress

they are encountering during the anniversary period overwhelms

them and causes them to dysfunction on the job or at home. Look

out for your colleagues who are having a really hard time during an

anniversary period. Get them to CISM services or to counseling if

that is necessary.

14. Remember, the most important people in our lives have made us

laugh and they made us cry. Honor them all by the quality of the

lives you live. Thank you for all you have done to reach out to

others in times of need. Please use this reflective time around the

anniversary to contemplate but not get bogged down in the past

while simultaneously resting and preparing yourselves for the

future. No doubt, there is yet far more to contribute.