My Lesson From 9/11: Presence Matters – Often More Than Words

By Jamie Sussel Turner ~

What is there to be learned 17 years after this tragic day?

I was a school principal on 9/11, in the small New Jersey community of Fair Haven, an hour south of Manhattan. As the shocking events of that day unfolded there was no road map to guide me. I went classroom to classroom to let teachers know what was happening and find out who might be worried about a family member or friend. Some of my words surely came out wrong.

I knew not to say, “I know how you feel,” because I clearly didn’t. One teacher’s husband was missing for hours. Two children had lost their fathers, their mothers lost husbands, and neighbors lost friends. Nothing in my life came close to that tragedy.

Sometimes words aren’t needed.

The moments following that day, when I didn’t say anything at all, are the ones that were my teacher. I had no words to stop the tears of a crying child, as she felt the loss of her father, so I held her tightly on my lap as they flowed. When her mother cried, I placed my hand gently on her knee as if to say, “It’s O.K. to let it out. I’m here to hold your pain.”

Being with families who were dealing with such turmoil and loss, left me wordless.  When the right words didn’t materialize I saw that words were not the only thing that mattered.

My own smaller loss.

It could be that my own life situation made me more vulnerable and open during this time. Just a few months before 9/11 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I hung up the phone from hearing my doctor’s diagnosis my husband held me on his lap while I cried. I can’t remember what he said, though I’m sure his words were comforting. What I remember most is his presence, the feeling of his arms holding me tightly, and the security it gave me that he would go through whatever was to come with me.

I don’t mean to minimize words. They matter very much too. On the phone with my doctor on that fateful day, I remember her words vividly. “You’re very lucky,” she said in a soft, caring voice. At the time her words were incongruous. “How could I have cancer and be lucky,” I wondered. Her words stayed with me and their meaning became clear over time—I am lucky to have survived.

But, before 9/11 and my illness I hadn’t felt the power of presence in such a deeply moving way, leading me to this lesson:

In the years following loss, people remember that we were there, maybe even more than they remember what we might have said.

So, I’d say that while words are very important, the presence of someone who can hold our pain without trying to fix it can be even more profound and lasting. What would you say?


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