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9/11 anniversary: Why remembering in fits and starts is OK

Working on a book about 9/11 survivors, I found I could only immerse myself in interview footage in fits and starts, much as our nation remembers September 11. That's how mourning – public and private – works. To heal, we have to let ourselves both forget and remember.

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I sit in the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library, my headphones on, staring at my computer screen as a woman in her mid-30s tells the story of September 11, 2001, tears unceasing, hands wringing. Her face is framed against a sea of black. Her story is devastating.

This is the kind of footage I’ve been immersed in for the last two years as I worked on a book titled “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors.“ The book coincides with a documentary film in which all of the featured survivors were interviewed every year on the anniversary of September 11th. As you can imagine, this amounts to a lot of footage – much of which I’ve watched in very deliberate fits and starts.

Why fits and starts? Because, to my mind, there is simply no other way to healthily process so much sadness, so much grief, so much raw humanity. I would often watch a few hours of footage of Tanya, described above, reflecting on the loss of her firefighter fiancé Sergio, and then take a long lunch, sitting in Bryant Park, watching the chess players and tourists in order to remind myself that there is play and discovery alongside loss and death.

My pattern of immersing myself and then taking breaks from the footage, it turns out, mirrors the experience of grief itself, according to current psychological theory. Recent research indicates that grief is most often ridden like a roller coaster – up and down and all around – rather than in consecutive stages as was previously thought. Dr. George Bonnano, author of “The Other Side of Sadness,” argues that those who are mourning experience moments of acute sadness alongside moments of relief, gratitude, and even laughter. It’s all part of the process, Bonnano explains.

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