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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.

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Did church attendance go up?

The churches were packed only for a month, and then church attendance fell off to below normal, which is apparently a fairly normal reaction to trauma. People need to embrace and be embraced by a larger group in the sense of communal interest and love, and then they just need to pull apart and retreat.

Was it also that people felt abandoned by God?

Some did. And some felt abandoned by their religious leaders. There's one priest who was so overwhelmed that he could not be reached by phone by the 24 families in his parish who lost a loved one. He evaporated for the first week. And [people] became so angry that they never would go back to the church.

People were really revealed, even to themselves, in ways they hadn't seen before. And other people rose to the occasion who weren't designated leaders of the community, like the nurse in that parish who came forward and provided a sanctuary for the families starting the first night, a 24-hour sanctuary in which she remained all the time for the next three weeks.

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What did the survivors offer each other that they couldn't get from mental health professionals?

The mental health personnel in the community, many of them, were really at a loss. There really was no experience like this in our history to go on. There's no data on what kind of treatment works for victims of terrorism in the context of living with an ongoing threat. These professionals didn't know where to start, there was nothing in their professional playbook to meet the situation. And then they were often rejected. Many of the professionals rushed down with nurses and doctors and EMS personnel to the ferry dock when the survivors were coming of the ferry to provide mental health support. Nobody wanted it. All they wanted was a cell phone to call their loved ones.

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People for several months by and large did not seek any kind of mental health help. What did draw early on as early as October were some support groups, most of which had a religious base. Then I remember some three or four months after the tragedy, one of Rabbi Levin's congregation came up after a Saturday service and said, "I notice that people are feeling very fragile about their own lives." And he said, "Yes, and that's how you know that nothing is happening-because if they're only concerned with the fragility of their own lives they're missing the whole point." That spurred him on to do more outreach.

The fascinating thing to me was, the religious leaders, about half a dozen of them, found one another and admitted to one another, "I can't cope, I don't know how to do this, I am overwhelmed, I don't know where to start. I need help." So they gathered with each other on an informal basis, at various churches and temples and gave each other strength--and techniques and tactics and even exchanged Scripture.

What is the grief like after almost two years. Has it changed? What are the lingering effects?

Well, it changes very much. Eighteen months was kind of the peak of where grief really feels bottomless, but grieving is a spiral.that's one thing I think I've learned, grieving isn't linear, it's a spiral and the mind takes in only what it can handle. And a person may seem to be moving until a memory or a sensory detail or another trauma piles on. And then the person loops back down into despair, and it's necessary to thrust forward, to complete the loop and continue to move forward again.

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Interview by Wendy Schuman
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