Broken hearts mend the world: Why grief is important

911 memorial museum new york city grief grieving family
“For New York to take a stand and say we will honor this, our human history, we will honor the lives that we lost on that day and the days following, is I think very important,” Eppley says.
Credit: Getty Images

The opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum brought mixed feelings to the city most profoundly touched by its tragedy. But for those living with grief tied to the event, whether it’s directly tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the museum is a high-profile acknowledgement that their loss is not forgotten, according to psychotherapist Mandy Eppley.

“It’s about letting survivors and families know that, while it is a trauma, we’re not asking you to forget, and we won’t forget,” she says.

The museum is a rarity in the modern, fast-paced world that pressures people to overcome grief rather than allowing themselves to experience it fully, Eppley says.

“Society is sending the messages subtly and directly to get on with it, because it’s making everyone uncomfortable,” she says. “The reality is grief has its own pace.”

And it doesn’t take an event the magnitude of 9/11 to spur grief — the end of a relationship, being laid off or health problems can all trigger feelings of profound sadness. But with so much tragedy constantly bombarding us on 24-hour news networks and the Internet, our individual losses can seem insignificant. “Technology is a gift and a blessing,” Eppley says. “And at the same time, perhaps when we don’t have digital boundaries and we have that coming at us all the time, maybe it desensitizes us to human suffering.”

There are consequences to not letting ourselves experience that sadness. “The truth of the human psyche is our capacity to feel the depth of our sorrow … is directly tied to how much we experience our joy. We don’t have the luxury of compartmentalizing our grief and it not impacting our capacity to feel overall.”

Refusing to deal with grief can lead to numbing behaviors, from alcoholism and compulsive shopping to watching too much television — anything to avoid the pain.

But suppressing grief also robs us of its potential.

“Learning to hold [our grief] with great dignity, to hold it without shame, it does create a new relationship to the loss itself,” she says. “If people are open to their grief, and truly grief is how we learn about who we are, it’s what great movements are birthed out of.”

She points to the #SaveOurGirls campaign and Mothers Against Drunk Driving as moments when grief transformed from pain into positive action. But even a casserole for an elderly neighbor, volunteering for a nonprofit or taking part in a cleanup makes a difference. Ask yourself what you’re most passionate about and turn it into action.

“People who have been brokenhearted are the ones bringing change to our planet,” Eppley says. “I’ve never seen a therapeutic technique that can hold a candle to people using their suffering to help others.”

Can’t talk about it?

Allowing ourselves to experience the intensity of our feelings is not something many people are taught, Eppley says. To help those who may not even confide in a friend, let alone a professional, Eppley and fellow psychotherapist Chris Saade created the Model of Heart-Centered Grief, an in-home counseling program. To learn more, visit The Respite, Eppley’s nonprofit foundation .


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