Catastrophe, trauma and the processing of loss

Paul Sparkes
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As America awoke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a chain of events was set in motion that would bring horrendous death to thousands and grief to thousands more.

Like the rest of the world, this province held its breath. Unfolding to our unwilling eyes and ears was a collective act of terrorism that would trump any and all that had gone before.

Because it still rivets the attention, it is difficult to accept that it occurred a decade ago. But as we continue to explore the scope and complexity of 9-11, including its still-emerging stories and its onward flowing consequences, we realize it is not like other news events that emerge only to distract us until another crosses the stage.

Rev. Dr. Peter Barnes is regional co-ordinator for bereavement services with Eastern Health’s palliative and end-of-life care team. A service encompassing education and information sessions, confidential counselling and  bereavement support, it is emerging here as a component of all relevant health care services. In his career, Barnes has been an assistant professor in the faculty of human sciences at St. Paul University in Ottawa.

How does a professional in this field of counselling view catastrophic events and mass grief?

As a Canadian, with the United States as our neighbour, he recalls, “I experienced helplessness in re­sponse to the degree of destruction.”

National and personal

“To be aware of the full impact, it is important to consider the collective hurt inflicted upon a nation as well as the personal pain,” Barnes says. “These can trigger our sense of empathy for the people as a whole as well as our own unresolved grief.” 

In the public response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, there was marked empathy from all directions, he says. Emotion was characterized by a sense that she was a victim of misrepresentation. Likely, Diana’s death also revived in many individuals their sense of unresolved grief, conscious or unconscious.

An excerpt from one of Barnes’ study papers bears on the relationship between personal grief and a public and traumatic event:

“Grief may not be immediate. It may take days or weeks for the reality of the loss to set in. Grief emotions may be felt in response to another event that somehow triggered memories of the loss. There may be a time when you feel that you have recovered and that things are going back to normal, when suddenly you are faced with intense emotions.”

Dr. Paul Wong, president of the International Network on Personal Meaning and author of “Pathways to Posttraumatic Growth,” considered “the positive psychology of growing through traumas.”

Although it may seem incredible that anything positive should come from so negative an event as 9-11, “a percentage of people show positive changes as a result of trauma, including increased compassion and empathy for others,” Wong has written.

As mourning is the exercise of processing loss, it is part of the evolution of life. And it is Barnes’ conviction that if we cannot experience the pain of the loss, if we suppress or deny it, we are delaying the inevitable.

Interestingly, in his career, he has been called upon to counsel addicts. In some of those cases,  unresolved grief has been identified in the afflicted person’s background and may be a  significant consideration in the person’s  healing process.

Unlike other species, humans have the ability to reflect and grow from these experiences, Barnes points out.  Events such as 9-11 have the potential to change our values and to move society from complacency to genuine concern, compassion and empathy.

Our sense of belonging

Barnes referred to the reaction of Gander, where many U.S.-bound planes landed in response to a general and immediate order to land. He noted Gander’s history involving the military and the fact that to the armed forces death is no stranger. That, in part, would account for the great upwelling of concern and care which the town demonstrated toward stranded strangers. There was an outpouring of concern.

“Overall, I believe we felt it here because we have a sense of belonging to New England — it is close to us in our history. And one of the spiritual tenets of life is belonging — belonging to family, community, to a country and its culture.”

This sense of belonging is worth encouraging. In his personal life, with the anticipated arrival of a granddaughter, Barnes says he wants to help the child to know family members who have gone before — and how, in this place where she belongs, some wonderful things have been accomplished — and consider the talented outpouring for which Newfoundland is known. Armed with such values, people are likely be better able to channel grief to creativity. He says society needs to put in place aids to this kind of growth.


Reinvesting  emotional energy

In our attempts to make sense of

9-11 after 10 years, Barnes refers to the importance of looking at what has changed for the better and the positive relationships that have risen out of 9-11.

He references J. William Worden  (“Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy,” 1991) where he says the tasks of mourning, in part, are to accept the reality of the loss, experience the pain of the loss, to withdraw emotional energy from the deceased and reinvest it in other relationships and activities.

Memorials temporary and permanent

Sidewalk memorials spring up almost overnight in response to tragic events that grip the public. We also build memorials. While some may have wondered if such focal points are relevant, Barnes says memorials often bring people together.

“It is a tangible way of showing we care.”

He sees a value in funeral rituals and anniversaries, too, noting that as these help to make real the fact of the loss, they are opportunities to express thoughts and feelings about the deceased and are reflections of the life of the person who is gone.

We can shape our own rituals around a death, he added, as with an annual public concert that may be organized to celebrate the life of a noted musician.

“The trauma of war and catastrophic events can be destructive, but it does not have to be in vain because societies may learn from the experience and eventually may find new meaning in the shared loss of human life and destruction. 

“All one has to do is to look at the potential for creativity found in the emotional and powerful speeches, songs, poetry, plays and tributes that arise from events like 9-11.

“Making sense of traumatic events like 9-11 is a part of the grief process, a part of the healing from the deep personal and collective pain that has impacted individuals, communities and nations.”

Organizations: St. Paul University, International Network on Personal Meaning

Geographic location: United States, New England, Newfoundland

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