Gail Sheehy on America's Passage
Middletown was a typical suburb of New York, where people didn't seem to need one another. Then 9/11 happened.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
One of the reasons we as Americans jump to this kind of pop psychology of closure, which is not a clinical term by the way, is because we want to move on. We don't want to keep confronting death. It's just too frightening. So saying these things to placate ourselves becomes really a placebo for us.
What have you learned from the Oklahoma City survivors who are helping the Middletown survivors in the Companioning Project?
The Oklahoma City people who are coming back to Middletown to act as companions for their counterparts in the religious or helping professions to get through this anniversary or prepare to help their flocks through it-they know that most of their people reached the nadir of their grief and traumatic reactions two to three years after the bombing. Those who didn't seek any kind of support or spiritual connection or help were the most exposed-the recovery workers. It was considered a sign of weakness or shame to seek any kind of help or complain, especially since they hadn't lost their lives. But after three years they would openly ask for help because they were hurting so badly.
How did this connection with Oklahoma City come about?
Well, my husband, Clay Felker, kept saying to me, "Gail you've got to go to Oklahoma City, that's the future of your people." So I went to their first anniversary memorial after 9/11 the following May, and it was very sobering. This is one of the facts I came back with that really chilled me and I tried to pass on to whoever I could in Middletown so they could try to avoid it-the secondary trauma experienced by the mental health professionals and by the spiritual leaders and community leaders was very deep. Project Heartland, which was the mental health response to the Oklahoma City bombing, lasted for five years. The mental health professionals who stayed with that program for five years all developed life-threatening illnesses, every single one of them-one had a heart attack in the middle of a session. They had brain tumors, they had MS, diabetes, heart attacks, they had clinical depression. So this thing called traumatic grief is like fire. It can really just jump out at you. It has to be handled very, very carefully.
When we went to Oklahoma City with the Middletown guardians, the professional caregivers were reaching out in the most emotional way to warn the professionals from Middletown to protect themselves.
The caregivers and the first responders were so depleted by this, having to be strong for everyone else.
They would feel they couldn't do enough, they had this on their minds all the time, they'd pull away from their own families, they wouldn't take care of their own health, they wouldn't sleep right. It became a spiral.
Is that how the Companioning Project got started?
That idea comes from my education through doing this book. I came to believe there may not be such a thing as grief therapy or grief counseling.
Yes, I think the effective effort is through companioning. People in grief need someone to walk with them without judging them. Whether that's a minister or a rabbi or a friend-it doesn't even have to be a close friend, but somebody who comes forward and wants to take on that responsibility. Or whether it's a mental health professional or the members of a support group. It's that companioning though the spiral that seems to provide the greatest benefit for both the companions and the wounded.
What would be the difference between being a companion and being a grief counselor or therapist? What would a companion do or say that might be different?
Well, they might not say anything. They might just be there, they're just there to hear the story to absorb, to divert to make you laugh, to find things to relieve you or amuse you. As opposed to somebody who has a formula that they learned in an academic setting to fix you. That's the difference. The companion doesn't try to fix you.
It seems like a very depressing thing to have lived with this topic for so long. Was it also inspiring?
Absolutely! It was also the greatest educational experience I've had in my life. I mean I learned so much more about how human beings work, about what we need about how we can help, about how we try to help in ways that aren't really effective, but we just don't know any better.
Most of all, I learned about the incredible human capacity for self-healing. We see it in the body, that if you just give the body enough rest and comfort, it has remarkable self-healing capacities. Well, so does the spirit. I saw people.all the formulas were broken, all the neat stages of grief that I tend to believe in because I wrote "Passages," they were all belied by the many different ways that people found their way through the forest of grief and found the light at the end of the tunnel. Some of the people who looked the least likely to find a route of recovery at the beginning did. And in fact everybody that I followed did find some light at the end of the tunnel and are making their way. Nobody was utterly broken by this.
You are the author of Passages. How does this book fit into your previous work?
The first sentence I wrote about this was "We as Americans are faced with a profound national passage. Each of use has to confront the fact that we too as Americans now live in a world of horror and simultaneously we must go on living with hope, faith in the future, and freedom. And that is an existential passage that every single one of us has to find our way through."
You're not only been a reporter, but you've obviously been greatly influenced by this-and influential too.
I feel part of this community-it's a spiritual community or a kinship community. That was Erikson's phrase-one of the other things I learned from this experience is that people need to find an intentional family that works for them in this new world that they find themselves in. This is one of those intentional families, the Middletown-Oklahoma companioning group.