The Friendship of Mourning: What America Forgot After 9/11

The Friendship of Mourning What America Forgot After 911

9/11 Memorial Service, WTC, Lower Manhattan, New York, September 11, 2011. (Photo: _PaulS_)

My mother is a hospice worker for a small nonprofit organization in Hammond, Indiana. She visits patients and their families and also recruits and trains volunteers to do the same. She is a crucial contributor in a coordinated effort by a team of doctors, nurses, clergy, social workers and volunteers to bring care, compassion and companionship to suffering people during their most frightening, painful and exhausting moments.

Her first experience caring for the dying came to her from the unforgiving fingers of the cruel hand of fate. Her father was in the late stages of heart failure, and as an only child, she displayed a quiet, everyday heroism by providing aid and comfort in his final months to the man most responsible for her happiness. His death left her without parents and in the new world of loneliness, vulnerability and despair that characterizes the condition of orphans.

Her eventual healing came through the spiritual medicine of hospice. After she searched within herself and realized that if she could care for her father competently and gracefully during his dying moments, she could also do so for strangers, she volunteered with a local hospice organization. She spent several years as a volunteer, acquiring the mysterious intimacy of befriending people who know they will die soon. Among the friends she made were a man who reminded her of her father – whose face she watched transform into a youthful smile when he felt a breeze from an open window and mentally transported somewhere far away from the nursing home bed that held his frail body. She became very close friends with a woman near her age whom she visited once a week for almost an entire year. She gave strength, joy and peace to black senior citizens, white middle-aged women, Hispanic men, Christians, atheists, retired professors and former strippers.

She learned that, although superficial and substantive human differences do separate people, there is a universality and commonality – an overpowering oneness – that bonds everyone in their shared experience of death and their shared need for love during the hour of their death.

Now she gently guides and lovingly tutors other people, mostly women, into learning that life is at its most beautiful and that people are at their most connected at points of divine simplicity – a breeze hitting the face, a hand interlocking with another, a kiss on the forehead.

Before my mother could visit one patient or learn anything about life and death, however, she had to accept that, like it or not, after her father's death, she was in relationship with mourners. The second my grandfather took his last breath, she linked together with all other human beings who lost both parents and lived in the entirely new motherless and fatherless universe.

She could ignore the other mourners, neglect her newly bequeathed relationship and create a lifestyle of adversity, resentment and hostility, or she could cultivate ways to honor that relationship. She could create a friendship of mourning. The friendship of mourning is what bereavement groups attempt to facilitate. It is a loving bond among people who find ways to improve their health in grief by doing it together. The friendship of mourning is rewarding to one's life, but it is also demanding. It enriches, but it requires the honoring of a new responsibility – the responsibility to use one's own pain as a motivational force to limit the pain of others.

On September 11, 2001, the United States of America acquired a relationship with international mourners. It, like my mother, was forced to make a choice between a lifestyle of adversity and hostility or a friendship of mourning. Natural circumstances forced my mother into that choice, while evil, injustice and murder forced Americans into that choice.

Noam Chomsky said that on 9/11, the reaction of much of the world to the attacks was “welcome to the club.” Chomsky made this remark in the middle of a geopolitical analysis of terrorism, foreign policy and international relations. Despite the global and historical nature of Chomsky's analysis, one can easily interpret “the club” to mean the club of mourning.

It is easy and often necessary, after entering a confusing state of victimhood at the hands of violence, to turn inward and re-evaluate one's own identity, ideology and source of meaning and purpose in a world that just became much more complex, contradictory and cruel.

It is also tempting to stay internalized in a state of self-directed and self-contained mourning. The longer the stay, the more problematic it becomes.

After the horrific tragedy and trauma of 9/11, America had the opportunity and responsibility to honor the friendship of mourning. It could have worked in concert and community to ease pain, alleviate suffering and limit murder around the world. Using its own pain as a motivational force, America could have joined with mourners in Africa, Israel, Palestine, and many other nations to make sure as few people as possible endure the injustice, violence and death that it experienced on 9/11. In building and caring for the friendship of mourning, it could also have opened space for revelatory moments of oneness at the points of divine simplicity to shine through the darkness of death. A woman who sees her child die in an explosion in Somalia, Iraq or Israel is paralyzed by the same devastation and depression as an American mother watching the towers fall, knowing her son is inside. Race, religion and national origin are irrelevant at the point.

Given the militarism and the nationalism that has characterized much of America's response to 9/11, all thoughtful and caring Americans should tremble in fear upon the consideration that we never learned or forgot about the friendship of mourning.

The first responders, firefighters and rescue workers entered the friendship of mourning almost instantly after the planes exploded into the towers. They rushed up the stairs of a crumbling, burning building to save lives. The passengers of United 93 honored the friendship of mourning when they decided to put the lives of citizens in Washington, DC, that they had never met above their own. The people who held hands as they jumped out the windows of the Towers, who preferred to die while feeling the intimacy and physicality of love, provided an illustration of the most brutal, but terribly beautiful, friendship of mourning.

The heroes of 9/11 understood and demonstrated the friendship of mourning. When an American, whether it is the president or a hospice worker in Indiana, vows to “never forget,” he or she should keep a sacred space for the friendship of mourning inside the memory of 9/11. That sacred space should serve as reminder that terrorism, war and injustice are everywhere intolerable and impermissible. The friendship of mourning should cause us to reconsider our own lives and policies, in Iraq and Indiana and in Afghanistan and America.

My mother evolved from victim to student to teacher in her spiritual journey after death. The only way America can truly put the attacks of 9/11 into its history and prevent it from continuing to cast a dark cloud over its past, present and future, is to become a student in the friendship of mourning. Then, a teacher.