Reflecting on 9/11 after a Decade

Madelyn Miller, Chair, NASW-NYC Disaster Trauma Committee

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, our close engagements with the world inform our reflections as never before, adding broader context to our deeply personal experiences. Evolving democracies in North Africa and the Middle East offer us much hope. Yet, we’ve also witnessed a decade of war, civil violence, and genocide across the globe and, with stunning magnitude, the natural and human-caused disasters of these years. Katrina and Haiti, Mumbai and Madrid are only a few.

We recognize though, first hand, the dynamic social processes of individual and community resilience. For so many of us, we have closer connections to those here and across the world who have lived through mass disaster. Considering their survival as we consider our own has deepened our understanding of both experiences, enhancing our empathy and deepening our work and commitments.

While a decade offers some distance for viewing 9/11, we are still easily transported to the moments, days, weeks, and months after early morning, September 11, 2001. Our experience and work at that time can be as vivid as if we were still there. Our grief and dimensions of loss can feel as poignant.

While our relationship to 9/11 has unique meaning, it is also shared through collective experience and collective memory, encompassing many realities. We lost loved ones, coworkers, a neighbor, those we didn’t know, a home, an office, the world as it had been. We worked at memorials, at lunch tables, in a chapel. We ran groups. We listened to questions that had no answers. We absorbed anxiety, grief, despair, and felt our own. We were students, our first day in the field. We were not yet social workers. We were faculty teaching, clinicians practicing. We wrote. We trained. We developed programs. We ran organizations. We had lived through terrorism before. We had experienced previous trauma, loss, or disruption. We had been through war, worked at hospices, done earlier human rights work. We worried about our families. Our house of worship was targeted. Our mode of dress made us more vulnerable. We were alone. We were overwhelmed. We were heartbroken. Our experience in the world was uncertain. Our sense of safety was permanently changed.

And, we learned the importance of ongoing collegial support, continuing learning, and active social engagement, as essential self-care. We realized the inevitable impact of our dual role as both survivors and providers. We recognized the centrality of social support, social bonds, relationships and networks of support as important resources. We understood the individual and collective impact of all disasters, and that restorative experiences must include collective, community engagement. We understood that trauma and loss were included in the experience after mass disaster, and how essential it was for individuals and communities to find opportunities for quiet contemplation or collective experience, to remember, reflect, express grief, memorialize. We knew too, from our experiences, and from those with whom we worked, that actively engaging with and contributing to the well being of our city was deeply important, offering continuity and hope. Many continued or became involved in disaster work, and instrumental in specialized programs, city-wide and well beyond.

As we find meaningful ways for reflection, whether through the arts, nature, and beauty, spiritually, with loved ones, friends, alone, or through considering broader collective experience, our colleagues can offer a particular foundation of support. Having shared much experience together, we can find meaning, support, and community through a sense of belonging, active dialogue, social engagement and connection. We can recognize what we have found to be resourceful over the years, to bring forward into our lives, our work, and our communities. We can also acknowledge the remarkable professionalism, generosity, and resilience of New York City social workers in the immediate and long term aftermath of 9/11, as we join the many communities of our city to reflect, remember, and approach the future, together.

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