I should have known better. It's usually me who counsels grieving families to start moving on with their lives after months pass and they are still calling. When someone dies from a sudden or violent death and their body comes to the Medical Examiner it is often my job to tell their family members what happened. Sometimes we form a bond, because I was the last person who communed with their loved one, and so they call me to talk. They'll call after the funeral when well-meaning friends and family have said inappropriate things or made upsetting remarks. They call me on the deceased's birthdays and on the anniversary of their death.
"Do you have a shrine in the house?" I ask them
"What do you mean?" they respond, perplexed.
"You know, a memorial. A photo, some keepsakes - something that makes you think of him every time you walk by?"
"Yeah - it's in the hallway" or "It's on the piano" or "No - but there's this photo in my bedroom..."
"Put it away." I say. "You are not dishonoring them by putting the photo in a drawer, but you can't be remembering every day, every time you see it. It's OK to put it away. It's also OK to turn off the radio when that song they love comes on. You have to function. It's OK to shut it off." I give them permission to forget and when they stop calling I know they've taken my advice.
There is ample research supporting the notion that repressive coping mechanisms can prevent post-traumatic stress (see links below), but I learned this lesson not from reading books or journals, but from my own experiences after my father died - and then again after 9/11. When my father died, I ignored everyone who said to shut off music, cover the mirrors and sit shiva (stay indoors and do no work). The more I worked and listened to the music I loved, the better I felt. Getting back to normal was the best thing I could have done. I turned in my index card report to Ms. Liebman on time and got an A. I listened to Howard Jones' "Things can only get better." And after 9/11 I also got to work. While others felt helpless, I had a job to do, and no time to ruminate or grieve. We kept the television off because my then 2-year old son loved airplanes and could not be allowed to even glimpse the events that unfolded repeatedly on the tube. Yes, it was repression, and I didn't talk about it for a long time. Writing the 9/11 chapter in "Working Stiff" last year was probably the hardest thing for me and TJ to do, but it was over a decade behind us and we focus in the book on how we coped, which was therapeutic.
So for my friends, I am sorry if I don't respond to your posts today, or "like" your photos on Facebook for the next few days. And for those of you at the New York City OCME who were with me on 9/11, we will forever share a bond that nobody but us understands. Thank you for helping me get through it. That I will never forget.
Interesting Links on PTSD: