Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Death of Bin Laden: Looking Backwards to Heal Forwards

feelings about Bin Laden's deathThe news of Bin Laden’s death has erupted on national and international levels in a mix of feelings. Attached to the thrill of justice served and military courage recognized are shadows of fear and the pain of catastrophic loss.

For survivors and the thousands who lost so many loved ones on 9/11 this is not only long awaited news, it is a déjà vu of that September day.

Once again there are ongoing calls of condolence and remembrances, non-stop media reports, and the visceral pain of losing a Dad, a child, a partner, a firefighter, a friend, a community, and the illusion of safety.

What Does this Mean for Emotional Healing?

It Invites Revisiting:

Highly charged events like Bin Laden’s Death are quite likely to trigger traumatic memories that unlike ordinary explicit memory for daily events are encoded under fight/flight conditions in those centers of the brain dealing with sensations and emotion. They can be sequestered for years – untold, intrusive as nightmares and flashbacks, haunting but never integrated into the story of one’s life.  While this event might trigger pain, it may offer an opportunity to bear witness, to share and transform traumatic memories.

It Addresses Doubts:

For some the feeling of being thrown back into palpable loss or the grief of now seeing a 10 year old comprehend what happened the day his father was killed, can feel like backsliding, “Have I made no progress in these 10 years?” “Will my children ever recover?”

  • It is worth recognizing that just as courage is not without fear; recovery is not without tears-no matter how many years pass.
  • It is invaluable to recognize that everyone grieves in their own way in their own time. Some may start the process now.
  • For children the opportunity to speak about loss and trauma in their own way at different developmental levels with a safe and loving person to care and to listen is an antidote to despair.

It May Relieve Survivor Guilt:

While many suffer from self-blame and guilt in the aftermath of trauma, many uniformed personnel be they firefighters, police or military suffer extremes of this. Given “their mission focus” and the mandate to “leave no man behind,” many have carried guilt for the men lost on 9/11 or the wars that have followed. If this gives them a sense of “mission accomplished” that affords a long awaited permission to grieve, to forgive self and move back into life – it is reparative.

It Changes the Trauma Narrative:

The nature of the traumatic event itself – whether it is a man-made atrocity or a natural disaster, its duration, its impairment of resources, bears on recovery.  The death of Bin Laden changes the 9/11 trauma narrative that we collectively share, internalize and pass down through generations. It adds another ending. It speaks to our need to feel that justice can still be served, that there is strength in resolve. It reduces the fear of existential terror – we can stand strong together.

It Invites Consideration of Post-Traumatic Growth:

Post-traumatic growth as termed by psychologists, Tedeschi and Calhoun (1996) is defined as personal changes that result from a survivor’s struggle to deal with trauma and its psychological consequences. Such growth is not incompatible with Post-traumatic Stress Symptoms, grief or loss.

On this event of the death of Bin Laden which brings 9/11 and the wars that followed into stark relief  – consider if the trauma you have faced has brought with it growth along any of the following domains identified in the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory ( Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996):

A renewed appreciation of life

New Possibilities

Enhanced Personal Strength

Improved Relationships with Others

Spiritual Change

To Recover Is Not To Forget – It Is To Live With Respect For Those We Will Always Love.

Photo by Guillaume Cattiaux, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.