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BLOG: Reflections in the field #5

The PS Centre has asked Jolie Wills, Psychosocial Knowledge Sharing and Research Advisor for New Zealand Red Cross, to share her experiences in and impressions of psychosocial recovery work with the readers of the PS Centre’s website.

The pain of discounted realities

Thirteen years since that fateful September day, I find myself in New York City getting to know Peter Miller of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, an online community of survivors of the September 11 attacks sharing resources, knowledge and supporting one another. I learned a great deal from this soft-spoken, insightful man, who, in his modest and understated way, explained about the wounds we unintentionally inflict through what is known as ‘the hierarchy of grief’.

The survivors of 9/11, many of whom evacuated from the World Trade Center towers, experienced significant trauma and bear their own scars, including survivors’ guilt. In Peter’s words, “The unintentional wounds are often self-inflicted, as we all – whilst feeling empathy for others’ losses, sacrifices, heroism and pain – look inside ourselves and feel somehow inferior and guilty. It was such a revelation to me when I finally communicated with individuals higher up in the hierarchy to find that many of them had similar feelings/wounds.”

Many also felt the imposition of the so-called hierarchy of grief, which served to discount their own experience and suffering. Families of survivors spent, in many cases, up to six hours fearing for their loved ones and, though no doubt filled with gratitude and joy when they did eventually reunite, the ramifications of those long hours of fear and anxiety cannot be underestimated. How does one express the realities of experienced trauma and seek the much needed support for survivors and their loved ones when the social context tells us we should feel fortunate?

According to Dr. Jack Saul, psychologist and director of the International Trauma Studies Program at NYU, who I interviewed in New York, “There are few things as painful as having your experience discounted and excluded from the collective narrative after an event such as this.”

In finding opportunities to listen openly to the varying perspectives and realities after a disaster, we nurture respect for each person’s experience, create support from unlikely sources in place of division, highlight commonalities rather than differences and incorporate the individual into the collective narrative – all so helpful to the healing process.

In weaving the collective narrative of a disaster and the community’s recovery, let us take care to include all the threads.

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