How to Handle National Grief

Everyone handles personal grief in an individual way, processing it at a different pace as they struggle to cope. But nationwide grief following a horrific tragedy such as the events of 9/11 is anything but private.

National grief and mourning like what gripped the country after 9/11 is different from grief experienced on a personal scale. Unlike the feelings of sadness and mourning that accompany personal tragedy, when an entire nation is grieving the intensity is stronger and constant reminders are everywhere.

"With a personal loss, you can make a choice about whether to have reminders such as pictures all around, but you don't have any choice when grieving is on a national scale," says Stacy Kaiser, LMFT, and the author of How to Be a Grownup. "In the case of 9/11, for instance, you constantly see the pictures of the buildings at every anniversary."

Sometimes, national grief can be easier to work through than personal grief, says Lisa Rene Reynolds, Ph.D, author of Still a Family.

"Public displays of mourning can help to normalize feelings over a tragic event like September 11," she says. "And while personal grief is always present, every day of the year, national tragedies temporarily stir up anger and other feelings on an anniversary, but not 24/7."

But a national tragedy, when completely unexpected, like 9/11, can spur intense feelings of grief.

"Unexpected grief brings hopelessness and helplessness," says Kaiser. "It adds an extra element to grief, making people feel out of control."

And when the anniversary of a tragedy rolls around, it's hard to maintain a sense of calm. Since it's prominent in the media, you almost don't have much choice about whether to talk about it or not.

"Your control is taken away because it's everywhere," Kaiser says. "You can be re-traumatized all over again and feel the fear, sadness, and anger when you see all the images."

It's possible to work through grief on a national level if you:

  • Lean on family and friends when you need them, Kaiser says. "Talk about it when you need to talk about it with them," she advises.
  • Be reassuring when discussing 9/11 with your children, making sure they understand that events like this are very rare. "Talk about what you and the government are doing to protect everyone," says psychologist Susan Bartell, Psy.D. "And don't have the TV on playing the same devastating scenes over and over."
  • Don't push yourself past your "grief limits," says Kaiser. If you feel overwhelmed and don't know how to handle the feelings, talk with a counselor
  • On the anniversary, it helps to be around other people who experienced the tragedy with you in real time, Bartell says. "Surround yourself by people who went through it, but once the anniversary is over, focus yourself on the optimistic parts of your current life," she advises. While it is important to empathize with one another, it's also important to move forward, Bartell explains.  "You don't want to stay stuck in that place of grieving," she says.
  • Tell your kids how you express your feelings when grieving so that you set an example for normative coping strategies, Reynolds advises. "If you journal, watch a commemorative TV special, or say a prayer, you should share these ways of grieving with your kids," she says. "Parents can talk about a national tragedy, discussing what happened and using the discussion as a springboard for a talk about peace, cultural differences, and so forth."
  • When you're trying to help a child cope with a national tragedy, get your child involved in art, says Reynolds. "Artistic ways of dealing with grief are usually easier for children since their knowledge of language and words is different than for adults," she says. "Drawing and coloring can be helpful." And, she says, storytelling and role-playing are helpful, too.