Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Memorials ease the burden of grief, unite us amid catastrophe!
 
 
 
Nicole Usher, 
The Dallas Morning News
 
 
 
 
An Internet search 10 months after the terrorist attacks on America reveals that there are nearly 70,000 sites dedicated to the victims and the memory of Sept.11.The Internet sites, along with countless impromptu and more formal memorials – quilts, candle vigils, sidewalk and subway altars – represent an apparent innate desire to mark and remember the tragedy.
 
"Memorials are one of the ways that people cope with the psychological threat of death," said Dr. Thomas A. Pyszczynski, a psychologist at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and specialist in terror management theory. "A memorial is an attempt to, in a sort of symbolic sense, keep memories of victims partly alive," he said. "In an abstract way, we are saying that even though someone has died, their death has not been in vain because some very physical memory of their existence remains."
 
The need to respond to grief with memorial tributes is a deeply rooted psychological drive...
 
"It's human nature to respond to loss, and a memorial is almost an obligatory response of mourning," said Dr. Vamık Volkan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, who is writing a book about the psychological effects of Sept. 11. "What differentiates humans from animals is our capacity to mourn, and when we mourn, we look for a link between ourselves and those who we lost with memorials."  Though the smaller memorials are useful for individuals to express grief, experts say a large-scale tragedy requires a memorial that represents a community response. And the need for a collective memorial is an even stronger psychological impulse that dates to "the beginnings of humanity," according to Dr. Volkan. Dr. Volkan also said evidence of memorials litters ancient history. Examples include the Sphinx and Egyptian pyramids, the Roman arches built to celebrate battle victories and references to memorials found throughout the Bible. He said permanent memorials are created when a culture wishes to turn the event into a memory or "lock up the event in a monument."
 
Quick to grieve...  
 
While online tributes show how the Internet age has made community grieving a faster and more accessible process, the physical memorials, experts say, will play a fundamental role in helping Americans deal with the psychological effects of the attacks. The impulse to memorialize Sept. 11 was almost instantaneous, a psychological response unlike those caused by other recent national traumas like the Oklahoma City bombing and the high school shootings in Columbine. Just hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, New Yorkers rushed to memorialize the tragedy, placing thousands of candles and wreathes in the city's Union Square. Fresh candle displays can still be found in this area, 10 months after the tragedy.
 
"There was instant commemorative movement by the community as a way to account for our enormous shock produced by the events," said Dr. Thomas Bruce, a psychology professor at Sacramento City College who has taught courses on death and dying for the past 30 years.
 
Some psychologists say the immediate flurry of memorial construction was a psychological response unique to the terrorist attacks. After other national tragedies, people are so focused on following the recovery efforts that there is no time to mourn. After catastrophes, people also tend to want to forget the event ever happened.
 
"In many losses, the natural reaction is immediate denial, but Sept. 11 was captured on camera, so there was no way to say it didn't happen," Dr. Bruce said.
 
And from an anthropological standpoint, memorials can capture an event that threatens a society's or nation's sense of stability or reaffirms a culture's core values.
 
"Memorials can do two things. They can show we can deal with a major tragedy and not fall apart and that we have some kind of impetus to move forward," said Dr. Arthur Kleinman, an anthropology professor and psychologist at Harvard University who specializes in mourning. Dr. Kleinman said "memorials are often used to inspire future generations while making a statement about the past, like the national monuments in Washington, D.C., and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota."
 
"Memorials are part of a desire to leave an enduring mark and an enduring sign of people who died," Dr. Pyszczynski said.
 
Familiar symbolism... 
 
Since people began building memorials to commemorate great battles or leaders, there are symbols that reappear throughout the ages and across cultures.
 
"The phoenix rising out of the ashes is something you can see all over," Dr. Bruce said. According to Dr. Bruce, the image is almost an unconscious symbol that shows the spirit rising from the body. "I know a group of schoolchildren who, without knowing about the phoenix myth, had a bird coming out of a fire as their small memorial" to Sept. 11, Dr. Bruce said. "It just amazed me because this image is so central to death and resurrection." In addition to the bird, arches and columns also seem to be universal memorial symbols because they "reach to the sky and seem to go on forever," Dr. Bruce said.
 
Though memorials fulfill an important psychological need, their immediate relevance to a culture's grieving tradition can change with every few generations.
 
"Memorials have become very popular in the culture, particularly since the Vietnam Memorial," said Dr. Edward Linenthal, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and author of a book on the Oklahoma City bombing. He said the success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial comes from its ability to capitalize on the American brand of individualism. "We're such an individually oriented culture that when we grieve, we tend to want to do so in a very individual sort of way," Dr. Linenthal said. The Vietnam Memorial establishes a personal connection with the memory of the war, Dr. Linenthal said. Visitors see their mirror images reflected off the marble, broken only by the names on the wall.
 
Defying death...
 
Because of the nature of the Sept.11 attacks, a memorial to that day certainly will be unlike any other, experts predict.
 
"The Sept. 11 memorial is not going to commemorate an achievement or heroes in war or our country's origins but the most violent attack on this country," Dr. Kleinman said.
 
That's just one reason why this memorial will be so different.
 
"The terrorist attack was so out of the blue and so massive and presented a major threat and challenge to our cultural belief system," Dr. Pyszczynski said. "What it's done is reminded us of our mortality and vulnerability." Americans have a tremendous need to confront their own fears of death and fight the fear that they could be annihilated at any time, making the need for memorials obvious and pressing, he said. "We need to do something right now that shows we defy death," Dr. Pyszczynski said. "We can lock up the business of unfinished mourning in a memorial."
 
Dr. Bruce said the memorials could be a way for Americans to fight back against terrorists and could be a symbol of strength and resolve. "When people are memorializing, they are basically sending out a message that these people were important, that they were loved and that they were a part of something bigger than themselves that will continue to go on," Dr. Bruce said. "The 3,000 memories will live on as part of the nation, and the nation will live on and triumph."
 
It's early yet...
 
Dr. Volkan, however, said he worries that it is too soon for a permanent memorial. The Vietnam Memorial, dedicated in 1982, seven years after the war ended, gave family members and veterans time to process their emotions. "It's too soon. The attacks and the memory are too hot in our minds," Dr. Volkan said. "Americans will be repressing their grief if they try to lock it all up in the process of designing and building a memorial right now."
 
Dr. Linenthal expects a contentious process because selecting and building a memorial is part of the grieving process, and he cautions that wounds are still fresh. He warns that the terrorist attacks create separate issues and conflicts for each site. "There's some question about the Pentagon, for example," he said. "It's a military site where people are still doing work, but there also needs to be some sort of public acknowledgement of the attack."
 
But some experts worry that a memorial cannot even begin to answer the psychological terror that the attacks have created. The attacks, they say, not only destroyed our innocence but also undermined the sense that people in America generally are safe at home and at work.
 
"What could we possibly build that would make us feel more secure?" Dr. Bruce said. "The attacks interrupted life as we know it, and now we want to see something steady and sturdy that will convince us that life goes on somehow."
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
 
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Last modified on: Apr 20, 2016