How the 9/11 anniversary can provide lessons for healing from Covid-19 trauma

New York City firefighter Robert J. Crawford died on the job during the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. His son Matt Crawford honors his dad with an annual solo hike.
Watch CNN's "Shine A Light," a commercial-free 9/11 20th anniversary tribute, hosted by Jake Tapper and featuring musical performances by Maroon 5, H.E.R., Brad Paisley, and Common on Saturday, September 11 at 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN)The anniversary of the death of Matt Crawford's father is recognized worldwide — a date of such consequence that just three digits summon images of airplanes, skyscrapers aflame, then clouds of dust and debris.

Somehow, the day still sneaks up on him each year, catching him unprepared so that he sometimes winds up driving around directionless until he can decide on the best place to take his annual solo hike.
Crawford, a construction supervisor, was 24 when he lost his dad. Robert J. Crawford, father of five and grandfather of six, died at 62 doing the job "that he absolutely loved" for 32 years: serving as a New York City firefighter. (There are now five more grandkids the elder Crawford never met.)
    Robert J. Crawford had been scheduled to retire in November 2001, at age 63, the FDNY limit. Instead, his remains were found with six civilians in what had once been a stairwell at the World Trade Center.
      (From left) The late Robert J. Crawford and his son Mark Crawford, who is now a retired police officer, attend a ceremony for first responders, circa 2000.

      Public vs. private mourning

        The only year that Matt Crawford skipped his yearly hike was in 2005, when he joined his family on a trip to the White House to receive a 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor on his father's behalf. Otherwise, he prefers to avoid the pomp and pageantry of September 11 commemorations in favor of quiet conversation with his dad in nature.
        Then-US President George W. Bush speaks in Washington during the 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor Ceremony on September 9, 2005, honoring the public safety officers who gave their lives during the attacks.
        "That everyone can recognize the day this horrible event took place, it gives you comfort," Crawford explained. But it also cuts both ways. The "commercialization" bothers him. Even the term 9/11 "tweaks me a little bit because of the gravity of that day," he said. "It has to have a catchphrase? We can say September 11. We can use those extra syllables."
          Although he was never much of an "anniversaries person," steering clear of public recognition of the date helps shield Crawford from its relative absence during off years. He had noticed that when the, say, 14th or the 19th anniversaries came around, they garnered significantly less attention. "Every day for me is September 11 because every day I wake up, my father's not here."

          Twin griefs

          During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, these past 18 months have brought unparalleled grief across the globe. The current average toll of 1,475 reported deaths per day in the United States forecasts a massive scale of ongoing bereavement. What lessons can we learn from the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that might help us heal from this new collective trauma? As we remember the 20th anniversary of September 11, can we expand our hearts to include all those now grieving?
          Cumulative pain from the pandemic will doubtless transform our experiences of this anniversary. The outcry that followed the attacks that killed 2,977 will be forever changed now that we're grieving more than 650,000 pandemic deaths in the US and more than 4.5 million worldwide.
          Singular events like those on September 11 continue to draw our attention, but the relentlessness of high death counts day after day can leave people numb. What could possibly contain the pain of a nation, a world, confronting so many losses of all kinds?
          Experts in grief and trauma recognize that anniversaries often bring about a decline in functioning among mourners. "Anniversary reactions can range from feeling mildly upset for a day or two to a more extreme reaction with more severe mental health or medical symptoms," according to the Mayo Clinic. To ease these common responses, most major religions include rituals for supporting people at these times.

          The healing power of commemorations

          Observing a death anniversary, or deathday, is a custom practiced across the globe. Rituals include yahrzeit commemorations in Judaism, memorial masses in Roman Catholicism and other branches of Christianity, Day of the Dead observances, as well as ancestor worship traditions in Buddhism and Confucianism, among other religions. Long-established secular traditions also include holding annual ceremonies to honor those lost to wars and other tragedies.
          These rituals exist because we need them. Shared commemorations remind us that we are not alone in our loss.
          Collaborative meaning-making in communities coping with collective traumas can help foster healing, research suggests. Given disruptions to many of the ways we come together to comfort one another, it's essential that we create new rituals to ease the pain of loss.
          Gatherings we typically rely on haven't been as accessible lately, cautioned therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, author of "Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief." "So how do we give ourselves power and permission to come up with our own sense of ritual?" In the case of Covid-19, customary approaches to observance are further challenged by the lack of a universally recognized anniversary, she said.

          Ritual creativity

          In the days and weeks that followed September 11, 2001, people across the country and the globe came together to mourn, finding solace in connection and community. Since then, annual commemorations, with their candles, readings of names, bells chiming, and moments of silence, have provided opportunities for people to seek solace with others. Yet, unlike the 9/11 attacks that ruptured the fabric of American society in an instant on a single day, there is no singular date that signifies the beginning — or will signify the end — of the pandemic.
          Even the day that Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic — March 11, 2020 — doesn't carry widespread shared meaning, since experiences of quarantines, lockdowns, mask mandates — or the lack thereof — have varied so widely by community, region and circumstance. How people have evaluated the coronavirus threat, and therefore its effects on people's lives, have diverged wildly.
          "We will need to come up with some anniversaries that we can move through collectively," Smith said. "We also need to give people permission to honor their own individual anniversaries — of when they lost someone, lost their job, canceled a wedding, or their children's school closed. Giving people permission to mourn all those things is important."
          With the death toll continuing to rise at an alarming rate, the pandemic is by no means over. Only the future will tell what common, clear date of remembrance might aid societal healing once we're finally looking back on these tumultuous years. The coming anniversary of the deadliest attack on US soil is a fitting time to honor not just those who lost their lives and served to protect on that day, but all the collective grief the world is suffering through together, whether caused by terrorist attacks, military service, Covid-19 or something else.
          The Mayo Clinic recommendations for coping with reawakened grief include: preparing for and normalizing anniversary reactions, reminiscing about good times with those lost, starting a new tradition that honors the loss through helping others, and spending time discussing your feelings with those you hold close.
          Most importantly, experts like Smith advise, allow the full range of emotions that often surface in connection with grief.
          Whether the anniversary of your loss is shared, like that of September 11, or more singular, it can help to remember that grief is a universal human experience. Recognizing that universality as just one example of our interconnectedness and interdependence can help us more mindfully knit together a sense of community.
          Ask people you care about what they are doing to honor their losses, both individual and collective. Even if you must remain apart physically, sharing a ritual can bring about a sense of togetherness.
          Matt Crawford took this photo of Lake Minnewaska in upstate New York on a solo hike to reconnect with his deceased father.
          While he's off hiking to find uninterrupted reconnection with his father, Matt Crawford calls to mind other people's losses. "I always wonder when somebody has lost their mother, their father, their son or their daughter, and that day just goes by wordlessly with no comfort for them," he said. "The catchphrase and the commercialization may cut me in a way that I don't like, but at least there are moments of silence to pay homage.
            "For a lot of other people, with this Covid pandemic, that recognition isn't there," Crawford said. "It must be even more lonely for them."
            Expanding our existing circles to acknowledge everyone who is hurting might just leave us all feeling much less lonely.