Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 and sudden loss

I have never experienced a truly sudden loss of a loved one. My mother's brain cancer, despite the fact that it blindsided my family, doesn't really count as sudden: first there was her odd behavior, then there was her diagnosis, and then there were the nearly nine months of suffering, for her and for her family, as she withered away. That sort of loss carries its own slow agony, but I can barely imagine the pain of people who had every reason to expect that their loved ones would come home, tired and perhaps a bit grumpy, from an ostensibly routine day. For about three thousand families, that routine was shattered twelve years ago on a clear, sunny September morning. On that day, those families learned the hard way that life offers us no guarantees, and the only incontrovertible truth of human existence is the brute fact that we all die—some of us, sadly, well before our time.

I can imagine, though, that despite the dissimilarities between the sudden loss of a loved one on 9/11 and the gradual loss of a loved one through cancer, that there are certain psychological parallels. First, of course, are shock and disbelief: whether a person has just heard that his mother has an incurable, aggressive form of brain cancer, or has just heard that his wife was in the World Trade Center when it collapsed, the initial reaction will inevitably involve that pair of emotions—shock and disbelief. Next, of course, will come a long or short period of denial, the brain's attempt to reject the information it just received. Beyond that, people will react in all sorts of different ways—shutting down, doing something cowardly, or revealing the noblest aspects of their characters. Again, however, a common theme unites the sufferers of both slow and sudden loss: an urge to make sense of things, to find meaning or purpose in the smoking rubble or in the cancer-ravaged aftermath, to catalogue the events that led up to the disaster, or to assign blame, perhaps even to oneself.

The long postmortem period for survivors of both sudden and slow loss also presents parallels. Everything the deceased has left behind, every random note on a scrap of paper, every item of jewelry or clothing, every snippet of a video recording—it all becomes precious, impossible to throw away. All that sadness is tinged with an underlying sense of the injustice of it all. I imagine that's always the case when a person dies before her time, leaving an empty space both in the home and in the heart. The soul is left lost and forlorn, like a child at a train station forced to watch his parents depart.

And yet sudden loss can't be the same as gradual loss. With gradual loss, there's still time to fill the suffering hours and days and months with all the tenderness that we should have given our loved one when she was healthier. With gradual loss, there's time to prepare ourselves, mentally and spiritually, for that final goodbye, even though, at the moment of death, we discover that the preparation has been woefully inadequate. People who suddenly lose their loved ones have no such time to prepare, no such opportunities for all the mundane, loving gestures that together mean both "I love you" and "Farewell." No time at all. The wrenching nature of sudden loss rips one's personal cosmos to shreds. It doesn't matter whether the departed left the house that morning after an argument, or whether she had been talking excitedly about her upcoming travel plans, or had been worrying about how well her daughter was doing in school. In a cataclysmic event like 9/11, all those arguments and plans and worries are broken, burned to ash, buried under rubble, and the survivors are left gasping.

I can't truly imagine sudden loss; it's never happened to me before. But I can try to. That, I think, is my highest duty on 9/11. Not merely to remember, but also to put myself in my bereaved neighbor's shoes, and to feel.



Kevin Kim said...

You might be scratching your head and asking yourself what difference, if any, exists between denial and disbelief. Off the cuff, I'd say that disbelief, which arrives at the same time as shock, is perhaps a species of denial, but its intensity and brevity are enough to give the emotion its own separate label. Like shock, disbelief hits hard and fast, then fades away.

Denial, meanwhile, is a bit longer-term. As mindsets go, denial is something into which one settles—a track or a rut that comes to dominate one's ways of thinking and acting. Denial remains after the initial shock and disbelief have faded, and unlike disbelief, which arises unbidden, denial requires something of a conscious mental and emotional effort to sustain.

That's how I see the distinction between disbelief and denial.

Elisson said...

A thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

The parallels between our respective mothers' premature passing are all too numerous. In our case, we had roughly four months to deal with the facts on the ground, and it was only in the final three or four weeks that the rapid nature of Mom's illness progression revealed itself.

Still and all, we had time to acclimate ourselves to the situation... and to say our farewells. For the families affected by 9/11, there were no such opportunities - or if there were, they were limited to a few breathless moments on a cell phone.

A dozen years, and it still hurts. And in my mother's case, it's been 25+ years, a dull ache now but still there.