On the 10th anniversary of 9-11, people everywhere will mark the grim milestone with solemn memorials and vigils for the victims of the attacks.
But can we ever overcome the enormous emotional toll that terrible events like this inflict on our personal and collective psyches?
Psychology professor Kathryn Belicki, who conducts research in areas of trauma and forgiveness, says remembrance events open the door to further recovery for trauma survivors.
She is co-director of Brock’s Forgiveness Research Group, which looks at issues of forgiveness, forgiveness seeking, and the different ways that people understand forgiveness and their reasons behind decisions to forgive. She discussed the issue with The Brock News.
Do commemorative anniversaries like the upcoming ones for 9-11 have any positive or healing psychological benefits with respect to forgiveness and recovery?
Whether such events facilitate forgiveness is a complicated story. Forgiveness means different things to different people, and some forms of forgiveness are more likely to help with recovery from trauma than others. So let’s set aside forgiveness and consider recovery from trauma.
We always have to remember that each person is an individual, and what helps one may not be helpful to another. That said, such events can be quite helpful for a number of reasons.
First, after trauma there is a natural tendency to avoid memories of the trauma and while that tendency, that numbness, is helpful initially, in the long term it does pose a problem. In fact, chronic avoidance is a strong predictor of poor outcome.
What can compound the problem is that people around the person who has been hurt do not want to hear about the trauma either, because it is hard to be a witness to someone’s pain. Some researchers have called this joint tendency for both the distressed person and those around them to avoid discussing the trauma a “conspiracy of silence.”
It creates a gulf between the hurting individual and others, and with that a profound inner sense of social isolation. It also inhibits the emotional expression that can be so healing. It makes it more difficult for the individual to do the adaptive “mulling” that can allow one to eventually find meaning in the event or in life.
Healing for many people comes from gentle exposure to the memories. Moreover, recovery is facilitated by social contact, by talking or writing about the feelings one has in association with the event, and by finding some meaning or “goodness” in the event.
Societal rituals like funerals, when well done, and public commemorations can counter the conspiracy of silence and facilitate psychological processing of the experience.
Is there a downside to these kinds of events? Can they trigger the opposite kind of response?
The key to recovery is safe, gradual exposure to memories of the event.
Unfortunately, commemorative and remembrance events may be overwhelming. For example, it is difficult to turn on the radio or television this week and not hear about 9-11 and be confronted with horrific images and sounds.
Such uncontrollable overexposure will be re-traumatizing for some people. Even for those who are at a point in which they are ready to embrace a remembrance ritual and to revisit their experiences, this will be a tough time for them; a time when the support of caring others will be particularly important.
What’s your sense of what it will take to overcome the trauma of 9-11, given that it affected, not just a nation, but people around the world collectively?
Questions do not get much bigger than this! Once we are talking about the recovery of nations, we need to consider political, sociological and economic factors.
However, at the psychological level, it has always awed me how people have an incredible capacity after the most horrific experiences to get on with life. To gradually rebuild a sense of meaning following the shattering of their assumptions about the world. To enjoy moments of laughter and connection that become more frequent. And to discover strengths in themselves and others even in the midst of great pain.