My sister, my grief

2011-05-07 13:42

‘When a loved one has been murdered, their family members often feel peace when the murderer has been executed,’’ a friend called to tell me on Monday. “Do you feel peace?”

Another friend asked: “Are you going to dance in the streets now and celebrate?”

On September 11 2001, my sister Karen died while working at the World Trade Center.

In the weeks that followed, my family and I held a memorial service for her, and emptied and sold her apartment.

Then my body gave out. I thought I had the flu, but friends told me my symptoms were all due to grief.

Over the months that followed, I began to feel better. My family and I have managed to move on with our lives – but Karen will always remain with us in some way.

Then, out of the blue, we learned that Osama bin Laden had died.

We were surprised at the large numbers of phone calls and emails we received, asking how we felt. We phoned one another. How did we feel?

Decidedly mixed. “It’s anticlimactic,” one of my two surviving sisters said.

Yes, the body of the man who more than anyone else, had caused my sister’s death 10 years ago was now at the bottom of the sea.

I was glad for that. But the news of his death still feels surreal. I realise now how much our loss is both personal and political.

I suppose people who ask us about our reactions are often uncertain how to react themselves – to celebrate or to still fear.

I understand that in the chaos of any act of destruction, people need something tangible to hold on to.

They need to know who is responsible, and they want to know the responses of those most affected: Have the deaths of 9/11 now been sufficiently avenged? Is it over?

Bin Laden’s death was cathartic – his terrorist attacks traumatised all of us – but in large part it is only a symbolic victory.

And al-Qaeda may even have more cells and members than it did 10 years ago. Certainly, Islamic extremists are vowing to avenge his death.

My family has struggled to adapt and move forward, and so, too, has everyone else. In the past decade, the world has changed drastically.

As a result of the deaths of my sister and the thousands of others at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, George W Bush invaded Afghanistan and then, under false pretences, Iraq.

Politicians have exploited 9/11 for their own ends.

When al-Qaeda attacked on September 11 2001, Americans wondered: “Why do they hate us so much?” Many here believe that they dislike us for our “freedom”, but I think otherwise.

There are lessons we have not yet learned. I feel Karen would share my concerns that underlying forces of greed and hate persevere.

American imperialism, corporate avarice, abuses of our power abroad and our historical support of corrupt dictators like Hosni Mubarak have created an abhorrence of us that, unfortunately, persists.

We need to recognise how the rest of the world sees us, and figure out how to change that.

Until we do that, more Osama bin Ladens will arise, and more innocent people like my sister will die.

I hope that the death of Bin Laden will bring closure and peace.

I am relieved that this chapter is over, somewhat, for me. But I fear the war will not end.

© The New York Times

» Robert Klitzman is professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of When Doctors Become Patients

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