From the Blog: One True Thing

Psychoanalyst Robin Stern and Project Rebirth | Psychology Today | by Jennifer Haupt

Life’s questions, big and small.

Survivors of 9/11 talk about overcoming tragedy and grief.
Published on September 8, 2011 by Jennifer Haupt in One True Thing

In Project Rebirth, a psychologist and a journalist examine the lives of nine people who were directly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. This collection of in-depth stories brings up questions and answers about how people react in the face of crippling grief, and how they rebuild their lives with hope, and amazing strength. Here’s more from psychoanalyst Robin Stern:

Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about this insightful collection of
stories that you and Courtney Martin put together.

Robin Stern: Project Rebirth is a companion piece to the movie Rebirth — and, stands on its own as a book showcasing the strength of the human spirit, resilience and hope. While the movie follows the lives of five people, Courtney and I were privileged to tell the story of eight people.

The movie has the backdrop of the rebuilding of the site; the book, on the other hand, weaves in the most current thinking from psychoanalysts, research psychologists and grief and loss experts about what has been newly discovered about grief, trauma, and resilience in recent years. While our stories do overlap with the movie, they are unique in their structure and narrative arc; naturally, we were able to include more details, more personal stories and recounting of defining moments from the survivors’ lives. It is exciting that these stories can be told through two different, meaningful and creative lenses.

JH: How this is a book about resilience and hope?

RS: Each chapter tells the story of one person who was directly affected by 9/11. Courtney and I had the extraordinary opportunity to draw on the footage, as well as interview all the subjects in the book, this past year, as we were writing. In their evolution and recovery we see the process of resilience at work, and we see moments and seasons of despair turn into hope for a new life and new future.

In reading about the unthinkable and still unimaginable horror of the day, and beyond that, how each of our narrators takes a next step and then another and another, we are all left with the feeling that it IS possible to move on after trauma. It IS possible to carry your loved ones forward in some way, into your new life. It IS possible to have joy even though we still grieve, to paraphrase one of the survivors, Tanya, at the close of the film.

We also weave a discussion of the ‘old’ way and the ‘newer’ way of looking at grief and recovery throughout the book. We have the opportunity to extend psychoanalytic thinking in the direction of the positive, of carrying your loved ones forward, rather than the old idea of ‘letting go’ and moving on. We talk about the resilience as a process — and, about how each person drawing love and strength from the people in their lives and from their faith, and, through finding new meaning and purpose in their lives, deepened their strength and enhanced their resilience.

Readers learn through the unique stories, and through insights from practitioners and researchers, that the average person is more resilient than they would have thought themselves to be. Reading about how others move forward into their lives and go on to experience happiness again, even after trauma, even while continuing to grieve, gives hope to those people at the beginning of a similar process – first facing loss or experiencing trauma themselves.

JH: What can readers learn about faith from reading these accounts of how eight people restored their lives after 9/11?

RS: Readers will learn that it is important to have faith to heal, but what you have faith in is deeply personal and is different from person to person. Some subjects took great comfort in their belief in God. Some people found their faith challenged when their lives were broken open. For Larry, who lost his partner, church has been an important part of his healing, for example. Tanya was deeply spiritual before 9/11 and that belief in something greater – her internal knowing that she will one day, when all is “said and done” see her fiancé, Sergio, again, has been very important for her. Brian, who lost his brother, finds that the ground at Ground Zero is a deeply spiritual place, and his faith allows him the belief that his brother can look down from the beyond.

Beyond the religious interpretation of the faith, we also noted that all of the subjects found a way to sustain themselves, through the faith that comes from knowing that “this too shall pass.” Though they may have found it almost unbelievable, at first, that they might ever integrate their losses and keep going with their lives, eventually the light crept in for all of them, at different times, in different ways.

JH: Was there one of these stories that hit you personally the most powerfully?

RS: Each of the people we have had the honor to write about, has had a very special impact on me. After hearing their stories, and talking with them, I certainly feel deeply connected to each one of these ordinary yet extraordinary people. That said, initially, I was drawn most to Nick’s story. He was in high school on 9/11. I have two children – a son and a daughter, who were both in school on that day.

My son, Scott, was starting ninth grade in a new school for him. He was in Nick’s position, a few days into the year, all his friends back in his old school. I remember Scott telling me about the assembly his school held that morning – and, how everything was confusing and suddenly alarming. I remember him telling me about the kids whose parents worked in the World Trade Center – how they started screaming or crying or were just in shock as the news came in. I remember that profound sadness and awful pit in my stomach when I thought about how it must have been for Nick – what it would have been for Scott, or for my then young daughter, Melissa. I remember thinking that if Nick’s mom had any time at all, before her death, she would have been thinking about her children.

At many moments in Nick’s interviews I would think about my children and what it would have been like for them to lose me at a young age – and, for all of us to miss out on the years together of their growing up into adulthood. I remember thinking about how devastating for Nick, and his sister and brother, and their mom to miss out on a lifetime of being in each other’s lives – of personal milestones and family celebrations and just of life moving forward – and, of course, for all the others who missed out on their loves ones – it was heartbreaking.

And, beyond the initial years of shock, anger and disbelief, Nick went on to live his life with the strength and courage he learned certainly in part from his mom during those early years of her devotion and ‘good’ parenting. Nick talked about how his wonderful mom prepared him to cope with life – as a parent, that is a big part of what we all want for our children – for them to be able to live their lives with confidence, courage of their convictions and strength of spirit – embracing the joy and being prepared for the inevitable sadness and loss that is a universal experience of living life. I know Nick thinks of her ‘life lessons’ with love and pride and I have no doubt that wherever his mom is, she is filled with pride about Nick.

JH: What’s the one true thing you’ve learned from writing about these eight survivors of 9-11?

RS: Life is precious and love is precious. Love and loss are universal experiences – as is the inner calling we all have to move forward somehow incorporating those inevitable experiences into rebuilding our lives. The stories in this book are living examples of how eight brave people, did just that – they are our truest teachers.

Robin Stern, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst, educator, and author, with more than twenty-five years of experience. She is one of the lead facilitators and a senior supervisor for the Inner Resilience Program, created post September 11, to help educators build resilience and coping skills. Stern has been a guest on many local and national radio shows and has traveled widely to lecture at the Jr. League, The American Psychological Association, The National Association for Psychology Today looks at Domestic Violence” Domestic Violence Prevention, Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, Yale University, Columbia University, among others. She lives in Riverdale with her husband and two children.