Gail Sheehy, author of the landmark work Passages, which defined the developmental stages of adult life, spent almost two years with residents in a town hard hit by 9/11, documented in her new book Middletown, America. She spoke with Beliefnet about the families' ongoing journey through grief and a surprising alliance with Oklahoma City survivors.

Why did you choose Middletown, New Jersey, as the subject of your 9/11 book?

Like everyone else in the first weeks after the tragedy of 9/11, I was looking frantically for some way to help. My training with Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, was very pertinent. She was my mentor at Columbia-she drilled into me that whenever an event of huge proportions happens in a culture-an assassination, a coronation, a devastation-drop everything, rush to the edge of the precipice and look down, because you will see the culture turned inside out in a way you ordinarily never do.

I began reading about certain communities that had been extremely hard hit, that by some fickle selection of fate had an inordinate number of deaths. The name Middletown kept coming up. I'd never head of it before, but it also rang a bell because of a famous book about America in the 1920s called "Middletown." So I went there on the first and only evening of their vigil about three weeks after 9/11.

People were just wide open at that point. One widow began talking to me about what she was experiencing-that she didn't know any of the other widows, although she knew there were many in the town. That really nobody knew one another, that it was very separated and that she was feeling very isolated. And I also noticed that the people who looked as if they were clerics, the people who spoke were stumbling around and looking as dazed and overwhelmed as everybody else.

So I just plunged in and began to spend half my time in Middletown, gradually working my way from the outer edges in, as I met one person they introduced me to another.

How many from there died on 9/11?

There were 50 in Middletown and environs.

And the widows were so young-this couldn't have been anything they were prepared for.

They had no resources, no consciousness that this could happen. Some of them were pregnant. They all seemed to have at least two children, if not three or four. And they weren't all widows, there were widowers too. And there were parents. And the parents were among the most tragic, because often they were middle-aged and were never going to have another son or daughter. The women seemed to be much more open about their brokenness in the first six months, and the men seemed to be rather stoic. But the women took advantage of whatever was offered, in terms of support groups, information, spending more time with their spiritual leader, more intensely experiencing their remaining children. And they were doing better after six months by and large, whereas the men began to really fall apart at the end of a year. By the first anniversary, most of the men were really not even able to cope or understand what was happening to them.

In your book you quoted Rabbi Levin as saying that "9/11 opened doors and some of us walked through." What did he mean by that?

What he and the other clerics in the Middletown area found was that in the first six months there was an incredible sense of community that certainly had not been there before. Middletown was a place where people didn't think they needed community, where people were affluent enough and their work was often in New York, so that they often came and went with very little if any engagement in the community.

Very early on one of the mental health experts from the county had been asked by FEMA to do an assessment of the mental health needs around the various communities around New Jersey. And of the six where she interviewed, she designated [this community] as going to have the hardest time. Because of its affluence, because everybody has to put on a mask of perfection, of alrightness. To break through that, to let the mask drop was going to be the biggest obstacle they would have to overcome in order to find community, resources or help that they would definitely need-and that did turn out to be true.

What changed there after 9/11?

Rabbi Levin and Parson Monroe, a Presbyterian reverend, noticed that people were so open, so needing, so loving, so frightened that they would stop each other on the street and talk about deep things. Not gossip, not chitchat. That went on for two to three months. But then depression settled over the community, and people became almost mute in their shock and numbness and grief. And then it began to transmute for many into anger or rage or withdrawal. But the people who were already on a path of searching for deeper meaning, for their spiritual anchor in the world, those people were accelerated in their search. And they walked through doors that they saw were opened by this tragedy to find more meaning in life and in relationships. Those are the people that the clergy saw as finding a real resurgence of spiritual need and belief. On a deeper level, people were really questioning faith that they might have accepted in a rather passive way. Now they challenged-and reaffirmed.

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.

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.

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.

In this kind of trauma, there are many factors that keep people tumbling and spinning around in this messy spiral of grief, most notably the fact that they were getting their loved ones back literally piece by piece. So you never know when it's going to be another punch. But by now they understand their coping mechanisms, they're quite well aware of the triggers for them, they've found their natural support systems.

But the second anniversary-I know this from the research I did with the Oklahoma City families-tends to be the cruelest one. Because people are tired of cutting the families slack. People tend to say things like, "It's time to get over it, it's time to move on." Or "Have you found closure? You must have found closure by now." Well, the dirtiest word in the lexicon of trauma victims is closure because there isn't really any final closure. There's a wound there that never quite closes. And recognizing that and accepting it is much healthier than trying to pretend that it's all healed over and you're just moving on as if nothing happened.

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.

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