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Putting One Foot In Front of the Other – The Legacy of 9/11

9-11 memorial - putting one foot in front of the other - trauma - action institute of california - jean campbellAs I sat watching Late Show host Stephen Colbert and Vice-President Joe Biden talk about how they have both endured great tragedy, on the eve of the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11,  I was moved by the deep connection these two men shared about loss.

Biden lost his 1st wife and his daughter in a horrible car accident that left his 2 other children severely injured (on 12/18/72), and most recently, he lost his son, Beau, while Colbert lost his father and his 3 brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old (on 9/11/74) and most recently, lost his mother.

As someone who was in NYC on that fateful day 14 years ago, it got me to thinking about what it takes to survive such difficult times.  Biden talked about the need to just keep going, and I believe he’s right…there’s no play book on how to walk through a terrorist attack, so all I could do for months  was to just put one foot in front of another.  In the midst of my shock and dissociation, my sense of surrealism and disbelief, I did what I have learned to do: I sobbed, I got angry, I shook with fear, I went to therapy and to my recovery support meetings, and I checked in on my friends and neighbors, showed up for my private practice clients, did what I could to be of service to others, and I just kept going.

All that got me to thinking about Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong.  Biden’s grief was so evident in his discussion with Colbert and as I sat there captivated and crying, I thought of the quote from the book, “…rarely do we see wounds that are in the process of healing.  I’m not sure if it’s because we feel too much shame to let anyone see a process as intimate as overcoming hurt, or if it’s because even when we muster the courage to share our still-incomplete healing, people reflexively look away.”

Colbert asked Biden about his recent statement about not being sure he was emotionally up to running for President, and the Vice-President went on to share that when he was with a group of military families recently and one soldier shouted out to him that he had served with Beau Biden, that he (Joe) lost it.  He went on to say, “You just can’t do that,” implying that it’s not very presidential.  With all due respect, Mr. Vice-President, it is exactly that level of vulnerability that WOULD make me want to vote for you.  Frankly, I much prefer his humanness to Jacqueline Kennedy never crying publically during her husband’s wake, funeral and burial.

It’s what doubling is all about in psychodrama – when you have your feelings, it gives me permission to have mine.  It makes it okay.  I sent a tweet to Vice President Biden thanking him for his vulnerability; for the permission it gives us all.  As Brene Brown wrote,  “Your experience can profoundly affect the people around you whether you’re aware of it or not.”

Biden stressed the importance of having a strong support system to help him deal with his son’s loss, and it reminded me of the ways that New Yorkers showed up for each other on that day and in the days following 9/11.  There are so many stories and examples of this:  the first responders who helped thousands out of the buildings and out of the area, the droves of people who lined up at the Red Cross to donate blood, the boat owners all over New York who jumped in their boats and rescued half a million people off of Manhattan’s Southern tip (see Boatlift. Warning:  video contains graphic images of 9/11) and all of us who just kept going for the weeks and months afterwards.

I would have been lost without the extraordinary support system that I had; the people like me who were putting one foot in front of the other.  Many people moved out of the city immediately following that fateful day, and I don’t question why, but there was also a group of us who, in typical New York fashion, thought, “This is my fucking home and I’m not leaving,” and day in and day out, we supported each other through it all.

It’s the getting through that can be so hard.  Once the shock wore off, we were all just left with our feelings.  Where do you put that kind of terror?  That kind of sadness?  That kind of anger?  Brown wrote, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic is.”  I can testify to that as I was honored to have dozens of clients show up each week who allowed me to support them as they walked through it all, and to watch them hold each other up in group and in workshops, witnessing each other’s deep pain and terror.  And I have deep gratitude for my friends and colleagues who did the same for me, as I was in the unique position of sharing a trauma that my clients were healing from.

“I agree with Brown’s statement that rising strong is, …the process that teaches us the most about who we are.”  By seeing Biden’s grief, it allowed me to bear witness to that vulnerability in him, which allows me to access the same in myself.  So thank you, Mr. Vice-President.