In 2018, I was honored to give a speech at the 9/11 San Diego Stair Climb – a memorial for the fallen firefighters who perished that horrific day 20 years ago, and the families they left behind.
As one who has been called upon after some of our nation’s worst tragedies, some of my proudest moments were being in the pit at Ground Zero working with the fathers of firefighters who had perished on 9/11.
As well as …
- Being asked to lead some of the first town hall meetings in New York after 9/11. And doing that.
- Working with the FDNY Counseling Services Unit and visiting almost every fire station in the New York area.
- Facilitating ongoing supports groups, workshops and trainings after 9/11 in NY and California
In my speech, I talked about two of the core elements of healing, support and self-care. You see, many of us, especially firefighters, are taught extreme self-reliance. And because of this, the least used four-letter word used by first responders, is “help.”
And so, is it any wonder that firefighters, and their families, often don’t know that it’s not only OK to ask for help, when tragedy strikes, it’s one of the ways we honor the fallen. Yes, allowing OURSELVES to receive support as the shock wears off and reality sets in, healing OUR OWN shattered hearts, fighting our way back into life, is one of the ways we honor them.
Healing has a life and timetable all its own for each one of us. During a program I gave for the brothers of firefighters and their spouses after 9/11 I learned just how important it is for us to give and receive support. One of the couples in attendance was a 39-year old firefighter and his wife. He had gone into the 2nd tower with his brother, and survived, His brother never made it out. Hobbling into the workshop on crutches, wearing a cast on her left foot, his wife sat down. When it came her turn to introduce herself, she pointed to her husband, his head bowed, and complained, “Look at him! It’s been three months! When’s he going to stop moping around the house? Or go back to work?”
After a long pause, I told her I could help her, but first she would need to do something for me. “Please put down your crutches and run as fast as you can to the far wall and back,” I instructed. “Are you crazy?” she responded. “Mam, your husband is walking with a limp in his heart. He has suffered a broken heart – the kind that takes a lifetime to heal — and is going to need your love, understanding, patience and support.”
For that firefighter, and others who have suffered unspeakable losses, there’s a lesson. I call it “the code of honor.” “Fighting your way back into life, summoning the courage to live out the rest of your life as an expression of your love, not your despair”, I told him, “is the way to honor your brother.”
He looked up at me for the first time that day, leaned over to hug his wife and nodded a “thank you” to me that I will never forget.
On my desk is a picture of his brother, and other fallen firefighters that were given to me by their families, along with a framed American flag from the FDNY in recognition of my service.
Helping families find the strength, courage and faith to go on after 9-11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Boston, Las Vegas and other tragedies has been my way of honoring my own daughter, Jenna, who died tragically at age 21 while studying abroad.
Without the love and support of my family and friends, and my own willingness to get the help I needed, I would not be standing before you today. And without these things, our Firefighters and First Responders, and others who work in life and death situations every day, can slip into a crippling darkness. When we are man and woman enough to ask for help, and download the software for support and Professional Grade self-care, we learn the following…
- We’re all human. And breakable.
- But that we are also resilient and capable of healing after even the worst losses and traumas.
- Grieving a loss, including a living loss, is as natural as bleeding, when you cut.
- None of us gets through this alone. Asking for, and getting help, takes great courage.
- Shame and fear are the enemies of emotional healing.
- When we make love, not despair, the central organizing principle of our lives, we live forward.
- Paradox is a high form of truth. We can be both broken and whole.
- Navigating our way out of darkness, takes great courage, patience, humility and self-compassion.
- We are all a work in progress. One breath at a time.
That workshop in New York after 9/11 combined laughter, tears, love, trust, honesty and newfound awareness. Sharing our stories helped us unburden our sorrows, normalize what we’d all been going through and find hope.
At the very end of the day, a bereaved dad poked his nose into the room looking for his wife. “We wish you had been here today” one of the women told him with a soft smile. “No thanks, Mam, I know what this crap is all about. Misery Loves Company.”
After a moment of silence, a woman who had not said a word all day, stood up, looked him directly in the eyes and said, “No sir, Hope Loves Company!”
Hope Loves Company (pointing to my button) became the watchword of our work in New York all those years. And, looking around at all of you, as we get ready to climb, it’s as true to today, as it was in 2001. Hope does love company!
Bless you, our Firefighters and First Responders! Our heroes. We will forever remember and be eternally grateful to you for your service.
Let us all rise up together out of the ashes of our sorrows, summon our courage, resilient strength, and gratitude, and honor the fallen by striving for greater possibilities tomorrow.