In this guest blog, on the anniversary of September 11, Jelena Watkins talks about the value of memorials in helping the grieving and recovery process:
As one of the trustees of the September 11 UK Families Support Group, I will be busy today making sure that our annual remembrance service at the Memorial Garden in Grosvenor Square, London, goes according to plan.
We organise the service each year to honour our loved ones lost in 9/11. It is a very simple ceremony where we read the names of the British victims and lay a white rose for each person. About 80 people attend. Every year we notice an increase, not a decrease, in the numbers who come. Some admit it was too painful to publicly share their grief so soon after the disaster.
Now in its 10th year, this communal ritual creates a physical, emotional and spiritual atmosphere that facilitates the mourning process in a healthy way. Being so far away from the main 9/11 ceremony in New York, individual families may otherwise feel alone and isolated without the memorial service. To have any value, memorials must be tied to the wishes of those left bereaved. When they aren't done sensitively or in consultation with those directly affected, it can be harmful to their recovery.
One example is a national memorial service for victims of another disaster in the UK. Front row seats were allocated to many national and local VIPs, leaving the relatives of the victims to be seated at the back. Survivors were not invited, causing great distress for many of those directly affected. Such an insensitive invalidation of grief and suffering can greatly hinder the healing process.
The Memorial Garden, which was officially opened on September 11, 2003, is thankfully a positive example. Dedicated to all those who lost their lives in 9/11 and built by the British Government, the families of the victims were active participants its creation. I attended the design meetings as a representative of the families. All the names of the British victims are engraved on the memorial. For many relatives, this is the only place bearing the name of their loved ones as most families were left with no remains to bury. I am relieved that our memorial is primarily about loss and grief rather than a political agenda. I agree with psychiatrist Judith Herman when she says: “Restoring a sense of social community requires a public forum where victims can speak their truth and their suffering can be formally acknowledged.”
Sociologist Anne Eyre goes even further and stresses the importance of owning and controlling remembrance: “The involvement of communities in the establishment of permanent memorials is a move towards the increasing empowerment of those affected by disaster.” Eyre adds that control and ownership of remembrance activities enables individuals and communities to “take control of their own recovery.” For me, the beauty of the Memorial Garden and other similar rituals is their ability to shelter our ongoing pain and transmute painful memories into remembrance.
Jelena Watkins is a qualified NHS counsellor working in primary care. She lost her older brother Vladimir in 9/11. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org