International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Creating Community After Collective Trauma and Traumatic Loss from Terrorism

Posted 1 October 2002 in StressPoints by Madelyn Miller, New York

At this time of remembrance and reflection framing the September 11, 2001, anniversary, trauma specialists have a unique opportunity, across the diversity of their affiliations and local involvements, to support a shared community process of commemoration and restoration.

Expanding on clinical, research and teaching engagements to include a community approach, trauma specialists can contribute their wealth of awareness about human experience after catastrophic tragedy--considering the collective experience of terrorism and the complexity of its immediate and long-standing disruptions to attachments and one's sense of belonging, as well as to the culture and social fabric of a community. Moving beyond specialists' formal roles to a broader framework of community engagement, support can be offered to the natural processes of collective mourning and remembering as the year is revisited and its profound changes are felt once again.

Beginning with familiar formats of clinical practice, teaching and training, community consultation, program planning and curriculum development--and venturing beyond these to other links within the community--trauma specialists can incorporate a perspective akin to that of public health. This approach is informed by the reality that the vast majority of those affected by the September 2001 attacks, like those after other massive trauma, will not visit our offices, consulting rooms or hospital clinics.

Instead, people across the population will experience the range of distress, trauma and traumatic loss reactions in their daily living, uniquely balancing vulnerability and resilience. They may revisit past trauma and loss, including its imprints across the generations. Some will be immersed in current trauma, loss or disruption-many forever unsettled by the introduction of uncertainty in the world.

A variety of initiatives are available. Participating in the public discourse through the media, community newsletters, speaking opportunities, collaborations wtih community groups, or participation in neighborhood formats can help acknowledge the range of complex reactions after the collective trauma and traumatic loss caused from terrorism. This includes that reactions to trauma can vary, often delayed and experienced over the long-term, and reexperienced at times of particular meaning and traumatic reminders--for example, the September 11 anniversary or other more personal anniversaries, experienced on individual and collective dimensions.

Trauma specialists' collaborative community work with schools, community centers, houses of worship, community forums, neighborhood meetings, senior centers, food co-ops, and local memorials can contribute to public education. As mourning, remembering and reconnection evolve, specialists can support active participation in the reparative processes of interaction among community members, social supports and natural networks.

It is important to learn from one another across the world regarding parallel collective efforts after other terrorism or massive trauma, allowing for the universality and the cultural and social distinctions of unique experience. A sense of continuity is provided through social engagement, relationships, bonds of attachment and the experience of communality. Perhaps by supporting and participating in the creation of a community that shares mourning, remembrance and reflection, meaning and hope can be developed after catastrophic tragedy.

Madelyn Miller is with the NYU School of Social Work in New York.