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Revered Psychologist and 9/11 1st Responder 'Dr. Judy' on Osama


The "Big O" is dead

The demise of the symbol of evil, hatred and terrorism - Osama bid Laden - has unleashed a plethora of emotional reactions.

Relief, jubilation, celebration, victory, pride - over finally "getting the man" who caused so much pain on that fateful 9/11 day. But also, there is resurrected grief and anger over what happened that day, as well as increased fears from the reminder that we are still not safe and suffer the possibility of retaliation. The man as the symbol of evil is dead, but the terrorist organization will likely strike again.

Psychologically, it is important to accept such a range of emotions, all expected, normal and ripe for processing - especially in light of the imminent tenth anniversary of 9/11.

In my years of working with survivors and doing psychological first aid after disasters (natural and man-made) around the world - I know that people are divided about how they react: some need to express, share and connect, and others want to withdraw and forget.

Today, a fireman who dug in the pit for his fellow firemen who perished in the terrorist attacks, told me he wants to be out of town on 9/11/11. "I spent too much time there, lost my job, and got cancer, I don't want it in my life anymore."

In stark contrast, a young woman who rushed to Ground Zero as soon as she heard the news about the killing of bin Laden, had the opposite reaction, "I need to be there, to honor those who died and to be part of what my country went through."

I saw the range and intensity of emotions, too, when being a first responder after 9/11, giving mental health support. On the night shift at Ground Zero, my assignment was to walk around the pit, offering bottled water and knit gloves (on some cold October nights) to those working on the site, and being available to talk when someone wanted to. Some needed to share tears and anger; others wanted to stay silent. Later at the Family Assistance Center, we manned the booth for those who wanted support, after visiting the booths of help for legal and financial issues.

I was affected personally too, as a New Yorker and an American. I knew people who died. I was panicked not being able to contact my husband - who worked for then-Mayor Giuliani and was sequestered in a bunker somewhere.

Personally I like - and need - to process (not surprising for a psychologist). For years I attended 9/11 anniversaries, in the first few years as a mental health volunteer (when such services were offered), and then playing at memorial concerts with my band, the Stand Up for Peace Project. A student of mine from Columbia University Teachers College had composed a song for the class project I assigned the students to do something healing. "Towers of Light" (www.towersoflightsong.com) - which I helped write by adding psychologically relevant phrases - honored the heroes and the souls that took flight that day. We've performed it many times - at interfaith memorials every year on the Hudson River Pier, in Mexico at a UN NGO disarmament conference, and in Japan every year, including for the Dalai Lama (who crossed the stage at the International Peace Festival in Hiroshima, took our hands and said, "Very powerful").

I've been upset when the number and attendance of events and memorials every year in New York dwindled, and when some politicos justified the reduction, saying, "Enough. Move on." For some, it's not enough.

When I watched the President's speech Sunday night, I welled up in tears, with grief over what happened and what could happen, and with pride for my country, and for the military and intelligence agents to carried out the courageous mission (which resonated with me, as an army brat who is now so patriotic).

The extent of the crowds assembled at the White House and Ground Zero so quickly after the news of Bin Laden's assassination was released, proves an important psychological point: people still need to gather together to share momentous events and intense emotions. Such spontaneous mob-formation counters the infection of isolation. It's mindful of whathappened in Cairo with thousands of people coming together. Coming together is a psychological gold standard in healing. It is evident in the immediate aftermath of 9/1l, with people creating spontaneous memorials, laying wreaths, signage on walls, and gatherings in parks to talk and sing. Deaths of celebrities (like Princess Diana and pop star Michael Jackson) have elicited the same public response.

The jubilation, cheers and chants ("USA, USA") reminded me of stadium fan behavior reacting to their winning team. Such an expression of winning (too bad that Charlie Sheen polluted that word) is healing.

I've been asked, as a psychologist commentator on Jane Velez Mitchell's Issues TV show on HLN this evening, whether bin Laden's death re-traumatizes people - or brings closure. Certainly any reminder revives traumatic feelings from such a major loss, but in such cases as this, it is healthy for everyone to continue to process emotion s from the experience. In doing so, there are several questions I suggest people ask themselves: "Where was I on that day?" "Who was I with?" "What did I experience then and what do I feel now?" "Why do I feel this way? For example, if I want to run from the feelings, what am I running from? And if I am reacting in the extreme, what other losses or pains I am suffering today does this event trigger?"

Ask others to share feelings if they like. I was touched when in the green room, my old friend from Z100 radio days, Showbiz Tonight host A.J. Hammer, told me his experience. Reading the New York Times on the Sunday before 9/11, about another bombing in Israel, he and a friend remarked about the contrast between that horror and their safe haven. Then two days later, the planes hit the twin towers and his perspective on life was forever changed.

The bin Laden assassination does not bring full closure. For example, families who lost loved ones will always feel the pain and can be helped with ongoing processing. Also, fears may not end, as the specter of future terrorist attacks looms.

Some people are even left with suspicion, no matter the photos or DNA of bin Laden's body after being shot in the head. They questioned, "Was it really him - since his body was gone in a day" and "Why did it take so long to get him?"

An interesting, other, observation: the military used simulation to rehearse the attack on bin Laden's safehouse with an exact replica. Such simulation has long been used in training for space travel, and now it's being applied in surgery (I recently went to a presentation at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital debuting plans for simulation surgery). Such rehearsal is also a psychological technique, proven successful in sports: to insure success in a real endeavor, rehearse the exact experience in your mind and "feel" the successful results.

Use bin Laden's capture and death for some lessons in life, like about identifying your own style of dealing with traumas (expressing or repressing); not giving up (it took ten years but "we finally got him"); and resilience (you can bounce back from any disaster).

See More: Judyth Piazza chats with Dr. Judy Kuriansky, Author and Host of LovePhones

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