|by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT|
Today a group of people from all over the country and Canada met at the Marriott Hotel a few blocks from the World Trade Center for a conference about resiliency. Here to discuss what it takes to get through the kind of suffering brought about by terrorist acts like those on Sept 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C and in the shadow of the memorial created in their wake, were clinical social workers, creative arts therapists, psychiatrists, lawyers and others involved in ongoing work with the families of people lost that day. But there were also clinicians and researchers who are involved with military families, the atrocity at Sandy Hook elementary school, the Boston Marathon bombing, a terrorist bombing that happened in 1985 off the coast of Ireland, among others. Because the people who do this work stick together, and support one another, and that turns out to be one of the key elements of the resiliency they cultivate in survivors.
There is a Zulu saying "a person is a person because of people." Trauma splinters reality into how things were before and how they will be forever after. It sweeps away people
who are part of who we are and elements of ourselves based on how things were. It changes us in ways we do not want to be changed. It changes us into people who must make room for an empty space where someone important used to be. This takes an enormous effort, as anyone who has worked through such loss can attest, and it helps a great deal when new people draw out new aspects of self as we gradually form an identity. People who have been through this - as well as some of these clinicians who move from disaster doing this work - "get" each other and in that mutual understanding lies the seeds of hope.
Hope on its own is a fragile thing, but it is a remarkable fact that with the right social support we can work the psychological "muscles" that develop into the resilience to keep going, to rebuild. We tell the story to people who are open and receptive, and as we got through the transformation to the "new normal" the story changes with it. In the blitz of information in today's symposium it was clear that there is reason to believe in the power of resilience and an amazing body of research about how to develop it. One thing we can see, if we live long enough in the aftermath of a trauma, is that the story does not end and has unexpected twists.
A woman who works with trauma response for the FBI tells about a situation she dealt with 2 years after 9/11 involving random airplane parts of the plane that was flown into the Pentagon. The FBI had deemed them not usable as evidence, and the airline's insurance companies who owned them determined the FBI had to dispose of them. During the final going over of these parts, a woman's pocketbook was found stuffed deep into a seat back. In the pocketbook was a wallet with credit cards and photos. And a note. This note had been written by the woman on the plane when she knew what was happening and it was a message for her husband and children she had the presence of mind to write in the intensity of what she knew would be the last moments of her life. She had folded it tightly into her wallet and stuffed the pocketbook deep into the seat back, no doubt hoping it could, somehow, make its way to her family. It had been been through intense heat, water damage and deterioration from the impact of time that it sat in storage. But document preservationists brought in by the FBI were able to make it readable and the note did finally make it to the family. "I'm so glad this came to us now," the husband said, after the FBI apologized that it took so long for this message to be discovered. "We need it right now, more than we did over the last 2 years. To us it means my wife is still with us
somehow. The timing for us is perfect."
This note had every obstacle imaginable between its creation and its intended purpose. The odds were always against it reaching that family. There were so many different people doing their respective jobs that moved it closer to the goal, most of whom were consciously aware of the role they played in a powerful, almost magical healing experience for this family. This note is hope, carried along on the energy and efforts of people, making it a symbol of what resilience is in human life. It grows if we grow it. It can burst through unexpectedly, maybe even at exactly the right time.
Jude Treder-Wolff is a writer/performer and consultant/trainer. For a complete list of upcoming trainings go to lifestage.org. She is creator and host of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a show featuring true stories, with a twist. Follow her on Twitter @JuTrWolff