3 Ways to Support 9/11 Survivors 20 Years After

How can you help and support 9/11 survivors 20 years after the 2001 terrorist attack? If you know people whose lives changed forever that day — people who lost friends and loved ones and health — let them know you’re aware of their private grief as the world commemorates their public loss 20 years later.

If you think 20 years later might be too late to say or do something, think again.

Remember how travel changed after 9/11? Public outcry, grief, and reactions rose all over the world. Policies and practices shifted post-9/11, causing radical changes that still seem inconvenient. That’s just just one aspect of how public life still feels the impact 20 years later.

Now, think about the personal, private impact. The families and friends of those who died on 9/11 (and because of 9/11) underwent far greater grief and upheaval in not just one area but all parts of their lives. For these survivors, the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, isn’t just about what happened when four hijacked planes inflicted devastation. It’s about what happened when the survivors lives were devastated.

So please, reach out. Acknowledge their loss. Then ask and listen to what they need. You can’t fix anyone’s grief, but you can let them know you care.

Peaceful but somber scene where tall bird faces right toward near and far sets of U. S. flags at Woodlawn Cemetery in Orlando, Florida.
Tall bird faces right toward U. S. flags on graves at Woodlawn Cemetery, Orlando, Florida (photo by Teresa TL Bruce).

First, Reach Out, Even If It Seems Awkward.

What if you haven’t spoken to your bereaved friend, relative, former colleague, or neighbor in a while? What if you aren’t sure whether you should say anything about their 9/11-related loss or not? What if you’re afraid it will be awkward?

There’s one simple answer: Reach out anyway.

Supporting survivors isn’t about you and your discomfort. It’s about extending compassion to help others.

It takes almost no effort to send a text, private message, or an email that says, “Hey, I’m thinking about you.” While such a simple message won’t convey specific sentiments, it will show the person they are cared about. It also extends a bridge toward deeper communication.

If you have a closer, more comfortable relationship with the person, consider reaching out in a more direct way with a phone call, an invitation to meet for lunch, or a plate of cookies dropped off with a hand-written note.*

Of course, whether yours is a closer friendship or a more distant acquaintance, you could even send an old-fashioned letter in the mail at any time now or in the future (because grief doesn’t disappear when an anniversary passes). It will cost you very little — postage, paper, and a few minutes — but it will show the recipient tangible proof that someone remembers.

Second, Acknowledge Their Loss.

Well-meaning people sometimes hesitate to speak of their friends’ dead loved ones, afraid that to acknowledge their loss will somehow remind survivors to feel sad again. But 9/11 survivors and others who grieve haven’t forgotten those who died. (Unless your friends have severe memory impairment caused by age, illness, or injury, you won’t remind them because they haven’t forgotten.)

If you remember the names of the ones who died, use their names. After you’ve reached out, consider acknowledging their specific loss. Try something like this:

  • “I remember that your son [say his name here] died on 9/11. I’m so sorry.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about your best friend [say her name here] as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches. I know you miss her.”

If you don’t remember the names, that’s okay. You can still say “your husband,” “your cousin,” “a friend,” “your co-workers,” etc.

You can even be vague if you need to: “I remember that 9/11 impacted you personally. I’m sorry.”

If your friend survived the traumas of 9/11 with altered health, don’t hesitate to reach out, but do be sensitive. Let your relationship guide how much you say:

  • For co-workers, casual friends, and acquaintances, keep your acknowledgments general. “Hey, I know this is a tough time of year. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”
  • For closest family members and family-by-choice friends, it might be appropriate to speak more specifically. “I’m sorry your lungs still ache from what happened on September 11.”
  • If in doubt, say less, but do say something. “This is a hard anniversary. I’m here if you want to talk.”

Third, Ask and Listen.

I could have listed Ask and Listen as separate ways to support 9/11 survivors, but they belong together. Be considerate and thoughtful about what you will ask and how you will listen.

Be Specific Without Being Nosy.

Most people who are grieving don’t like hearing the general question “How are you?” Complex emotions make it an impossible question to answer. (Learn more at “Better Questions than ‘How are you?’ — Part 1 — Why.” ) Show you care by asking specific yet not too personal questions. These ideas might help you brainstorm your own:

  • Would you like to share some of your memories about [name the person] from before 9/11?
  • Would you like to hear a few of my memories of [name their person]?
  • Since this is a tender time for you, would you prefer extra space and privacy, or would you prefer company? I’m available to act as a buffer or hang out. Whatever you need.
  • Do you have a preferred organization or cause I can donate to in honor of [the name of their person]?” (See Bonus Ways below.)

Listening Might Be the Hardest Part.

You’ve reached out. You’ve acknowledged their loss. You’ve asked a meaningful (but not nosy) question. Now stop talking.

Listen.

Don’t try to “fix” their grief.

Don’t judge that they should be “over it by now.”

Don’t point out ways they’ve been strong or how well they’ve “moved on” (unless they ask you to).

Listen to what they say about their loss and about how it impacts them today.

Respect What Your Grieving Friend Says, Especially When It’s Hard to Hear.

Listen to body language (in person or via video chat) as well as words and tone.

  • They might not want to talk about it now (and might even snap at you if emotions are running high). That’s okay. They’ll know you made an effort, and if they feel a need to talk to someone later, they’ll know you were willing.
  • Or, they might need to talk and talk and talk and even cry to someone who will LISTEN. So, be sure you’ve set aside time to let your friend talk without rushing, shushing, or pushing him or her toward any conclusion. Let them decide how long is enough.
  • Listening means hearing out, nodding, mm-hmming, being there. Listening does not mean “fixing” anything, confronting or challenging assertions, or rebutting what’s expressed.

Grief, even 20 years after, tends to erode filters, so you might hear things you wouldn’t have expected from your bereaved friend. That’s okay too.

Bonus Ways to Support 9/11 Survivors

If the three ways listed above seem too uncomfortable or if you don’t know anyone personally impacted by the events of September 11, 2001, you can still do something meaningful on Patriot Day — or any day.

Donate to Reputable Charities.

Many nonprofit organizations benefit 9/11 survivors and could use contributions. But do due diligence. Research carefully to make sure they will use your funding in ways you approve. (The Better Business Bureau’s Give.org is one place you can check.)

Volunteer for a Good Cause.

Choose a service organization that helps others, and spend an hour (or more) in lending a hand. If you already have a favorite organization, great! If not, sites like JustServe.org can help you match your time and abilities with volunteer opportunities and community needs in your area.

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*With cases of COVID-19 ongoing, please maintain best practices of doing no harm. Follow the guidelines of your local health officials if you offer in-person support to grieving friends or acquaintances.

Mother’s Day Grief and Greetings — It’s Complicated

What do you say on Mother’s Day when you know someone is grieving? I’d love to tell you — but I can’t, not exactly, because it’s complicated. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to show you are aware of another’s fragile grief. What matters is that you reach out in some way, even if it’s awkward or clunky or feels uncomfortable to you. Let the person know you care by showing you’re aware that this greeting-card holiday can hurt.

Here are some suggestions. (A few might seem clearer after you read the “reasons” part that follows; others can be adapted to use whenever you wish to support a bereaved person.) Mix, match, and make these your own as you reach out to family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, and others you encounter frequently or occasionally — whether in face-masked real life or on tile-viewed video meetings.

  • I’m thinking of you today/this weekend. I know Mother’s Day can be difficult.
  • Sending you extra love on this tender day.
  • Would you like to spend some time together/on the phone/video chatting this weekend? Would abc or xyz o’clock work better for you? Or would another day or time be better for you? Whichever you need.*
  • Hey, I realize this might be a rough day. Keep me on speed dial if you need a quick escape.*
  • No need to answer this text if you’re hunkering down. Just wanted you to know I’m thinking about you.
  • I know things are complicated with your mom. Keeping you in my thoughts this weekend.
  • I’m praying for you. Sending love too.
  • I’m thinking of you. Sending positive energy your way.
  • I know I can’t take away the pain of your loss, but I want you to know I’m thinking of you and [name the loved one who died]. I’m guessing that Mother’s Day hurts.
  • I’m thinking of you this first [second, third, however-many-eth] Mother’s Day after your [mom/child/beloved person] died. I’d love to hear/share stories about them if you’re feeling up to it. If not now, then whenever you’d like.*
  • This is a tough weekend/day/occasion. I’m thinking of you and I’m here for you.*

*The asterisk means this: If you offer, follow through!

Not everyone is aware that Mother’s Day feels brutal for many, and the reasons are as varied as those who find it painful. I’ve written about a few below.

TRIGGER WARNING: If Mother’s Day is hard for you, consider skipping the rest of this post. It’s meant not to further wound but to awaken awareness. You might prefer not reading something too close to your circumstances. Or, you might hope to see acknowledgment of your specific pain that isn’t included here and find the oversight disappointing. Either way, I wish you peace and healing.

Mother’s Day can be harder than we sometimes realize. Please remember that many folks feel fragile and would benefit from kind awareness (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Mother’s Day commercials flaunt the best of everything about mothers, children, and relationships. But real moms and kids and relationships are far more complicated. I was blessed with an amazing mother, and I’m grateful for the almost 30 years I benefitted from her presence, yet Mother’s Day reboots my mourning for her. After 25 years since she died, some aspects of Mother’s Day still tug me into missing her as intensely as when her death was still new and raw.

I’ve been told I’m not the only daughter who feels she’ll never be as good at mothering (and now grand-mothering) as her mom was. Many moms stagger beneath yokes of inadequacy, guilt, regret, or exhaustion. Many of us agonize over mothering mistakes we’ve made and how much we wish we could do over!

Widowed fathers facing Mother’s Day and widowed mothers moving toward Father’s Day experience similar sorrows as they grieve not only their own losses but their children’s too.

On the other hand, too many souls grow up without the healthy nurture of loving parents who keep their children’s best interests foremost. Whether orphaned, abandoned, neglected, or even abused, too many souls and bodies bear painful parent-related scars.

And what about those who want to have children of their own but can’t? And those who’ve tried. Who’ve suffered the loss of children they only dreamed of someday knowing. Whose children were taken or left them or are estranged. Who’ve buried children they still cherish (no matter how long their arms have been empty) and mourn for them every day — not just Mother’s Day.

In other words, think twice before saying “Happy Mother’s Day,” but do say something to show you’re aware and that you care. Let folks know they haven’t been forgotten amid the greeting cards and other trappings.

“Thinking of you on Mother’s Day” might be a more appropriate greeting than “Happy Mother’s Day” for someone who is mourning (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Fires, Floods, and Aggression: Mourning Mass Tragedies and Disasters

I  heard “largest mass shooting in U.S. history” the second morning of October and wondered why the newscaster spoke of last year’s horrific murders at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. My breath caught; another individual’s evil actions broke that infamous record.

The massacre in Las Vegas killed scores, wounded hundreds, traumatized thousands. Survivors’ face pain and scars that show and deeper scars that don’t. Too many families and friends now grieve loved ones who’ll never come home.

Such heinous, criminal incidents evoke collective sorrow. It’s awful enough when individuals (or groups) inflict irreparable harm and terror on lone victims — worse, far worse when they attack several or more souls. And around the globe, large-scale, devastating conflicts of civil (though uncivil) wars and military offensives cost countless lives and send refugees fleeing for theirs.* When media coverage focuses national and worldwide attention, hopefully it spurs purposeful outrage and aid.

And what of widespread weather- and climate-related disasters? Wildfires in the West and hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Nate in the South have destroyed homes, livelihoods, and lives in the U.S. and the Caribbean this year. The September earthquake in Mexico City and the winter avalanches in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed hundreds. Deadly flooding and landslides killed thousands and displaced or otherwise affected hundreds of thousands in Africa, South America, and South Asia — this year.*

cardboard meal kits with food items for relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, relief, grief, TealAshes.com, Feeding Children Everywhere, Orlando Cares

21 of 24 meal kits per carton prepared through Feeding Children Everywhere at #OrlandoCares — Hope for Puerto Rico (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

That’s a lot of beleaguered, suffering bodies and a lot of grieving, bereaved souls. A lot.

Whether political issues or policies contributed to these tragedies or impede subsequent relief efforts matters not for the purpose of this post. (Articulate people can and should make compelling arguments and take constructive steps in other settings to bring about positive change in days and for years to come.)

This post — right here, right now — is about comforting the folks grieving these specific losses  — right now and in the immediate future and for the rest of their lives. Because mass tragedies inflict grief on the individuals within communities.

You can (and should) give large-scale, physical comfort. Join with others in relief efforts. Volunteer your labor, skills, goods, or funds. Do a little research. Find way (or two or more) to help.

You also can (and should) give one-on-one, specific support to individuals grieving lost livelihoods, homes, or loved ones:

  • Acknowledge the degree of loss.
  • Where possible, bring physical relief (meals, clothes, shelter, water …).
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which minimize rather than validate.
  • Note the date(s) of the disasters in your perpetual calendars. Set up reminders to offer ongoing emotional support in months and years to come. (Yes, years.)
  • Avoid claiming you “know” how the bereaved feel.
  • If you have photographs of the deceased (or your friends’ destroyed homes), make copies and then offer them to your bereaved friends.
  • Ask your mourning friends if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. (Speak the names of those who died.)
  • If you have memories or stories about those who died, ask your friends if you may share them.

If you’re able to give time or money to help those impacted by recent disasters — whether global, national, regional, or local — please do.

volunteer, Feeding Children Everywhere, relief, meal kits, Hope for Puerto Rico, Orlando Cares, grief, TealAshes.com

These women (and two others not pictured) assembled and filled more than 58 cartons of meal kits (with 24 meals per carton) during the four hours we worked together at the Orlando Cares — Hope for Puerto Rico event sponsored by Feeding Children Everywhere. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Just as importantly, if you know people affected by these tragedies, please reach out. You don’t have to know them well to know they need support. You can make a tremendous difference to them by even the smallest of gestures.

For more on related topics, please see Typhoons, Tornadoes, and Other Disasters Wreak Havoc on Individuals.

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*To better understand the obstacles many refugees face, visit Their Story Is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees.

**10 of the Deadliest Natural Disasters of 2017 as reported by U.S. News

One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

Grief Meltdown in the Ice Cream Aisle

I cried over a carton of ice cream. Not while eating a carton — or even a scoop. I cried about a carton of ice cream.

Chocolate Trinity promised to be my grief comfort food (TealAshes.com).

(Yes, my dog eats more carrots than my daughter and I do.)

I cried because I couldn’t find it.  Standing in the middle of the frozen food aisle, my eyes welled up, my nose ran, and my throat got all cry-choke-y. Was it too much to ask the store to have a carton of Chocolate Trinity in stock? It was the only item I wanted for myself when I drove my daughter there.

I’m not usually one to complain, but Publix policy seems to prompt every cashier to ask, “Did you find everything?” I’d never before admitted shopping-list defeat, but as I dried my eyes and sulked my way to the front of the store, I decided this time I’d speak up. The moment someone asked, I’d let my red-rimmed eyes make my petition seem more pathetic: No, I did not find everything I wanted. The only thing I wanted was Chocolate Trinity. And there wasn’t any.

I’m not sure what good I expected it to do. After all, Mom always taught me “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” — not that  she could explain why anyone would want to catch flies in the first place — and I’ve tried to follow that approach with people.

For the first time ever in my years of going “Where Shopping Is a Pleasure,” the cashier didn’t ask whether I found everything. Since she didn’t bring it up, I couldn’t. When she bid me a good night, I forced a plastic smile and polite nod, expressions I donned often in the early days after my husband died.

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous even to me, but I cried a bit more in the parking lot.  I sniffled while driving home. While unloading the car. And yet again while not putting away the Chocolate Trinity I didn’t get to buy.

Looking back on my ice cream mini meltdown, I realize it wasn’t  the missing ice cream that hurled me into distress at the drop of a hat — er, drop of a flavor. It was the loss — the tiny, little loss — that amplified the grief behind the reason I wanted that Chocolate Trinity.

July is one of my grief minefield months, and I wanted ice cream — that ice cream — as a grief-trigger comfort food.*  When I searched every shelf of that frozen food aisle and looked behind every container but found nary a single carton of the one I wanted, it meant I found no comfort.

My husband died nearly seven years ago. I seldom cry over his death now — after years — but sometimes it still gets to me. Times like the approach of my wedding anniversary. Times when I’m briefly stirred back inside the newly bereaved, cry-without-warning emotions of the first year and a half (or more) of new widowhood.

When grief is raw, grocery shopping hurts. Everyday reminders of the loved one’s favorite foods make meal planning and cooking difficult. It’s hard enough when your body is mourning to remember you need to eat without seeing reminders that your deceased dear ones no longer eat anything.

One scoop of vanilla ice cream in a teal bowl.

When grief triggers a desire for comfort food, ice cream is ice cream — but vanilla isn’t Chocolate Trinity. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

In Grief and Groceries, Part 1, I shared why it’s so helpful to bring a family food before (and after) a funeral. For a list of specific, food-related ways to offer condolence and comfort to your friends after a death, please see Grief and Groceries, Part 2.

As for me, I’ll have to make do with vanilla. For now.

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*After my mother’s death, my comfort food of choice was chicken-broccoli-rice casserole — her recipe for chicken-broccoli rice casserole. Is the ice cream I wanted a healthy coping device? Of course not, though I could make an argument that it’s less harmful than some.

 

Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.

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*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.