Shay Mahon used to spend every September 11 with her family and her father’s old friends in New York. They’d eat takeout and tell stories about her dad, Tom Mahon, who died 19 years ago during the attacks on the World Trade Center. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm with offices in the North Tower, the first to be hit on the morning of 9/11 in 2001. Shay was just 21 months old at the time, and one of more than 3,000 children who lost a parent due to the unthinkable tragedy, which took 2,996 lives in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
During their 9/11 memorial dinners, Shay and her loved ones wouldn’t dwell on Tom’s death. Instead, they’d talk about his life. He was the friend you could call to help you pack up a moving van at 5 a.m., they'd say. He wouldn't just show up; he'd stay all day, loading and unloading boxes — even if the weather was hot and he was wearing corduroy. They'd reminisce about how he loved riding his bike around his Long Island town, his baby daughter Shay in a booster seat on the back.
Like so much in 2020, this anniversary will look very different than previous years. Currently a junior at the University of Miami in Ohio, where she studies finance like her dad, Shay says she can’t leave campus due to COVID-19 restrictions. In fact, she recently recovered from the virus herself. So, she won’t be with family this 9/11. “My mom will definitely call me like four times on Friday, I know that,” she says. “It’s just so weird not being able to physically leave my school and not going home.”
The anniversary of a traumatic event is often difficult, bringing on feelings including sadness and anger, sometimes causing symptoms like insomnia or loss of appetite. And this year, 9/11 might hit people especially hard.
How COVID-19 May Exacerbate Anniversary Trauma
“Any time we’re experiencing isolation, which COVID has infamously brought on, or you’re experiencing stress, it’s going to lower your mental and emotional defense system,” explains Lauren Grawert, MD, a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Falls Church, VA. “This will make it more difficult to deal with trauma, and can exacerbate our reaction to memories of trauma.”
“The realist in me can’t help but think, of course [9/11] will be harder this year,” says Shaili Jain, MD, an author, a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist and a psychiatrist at Stanford University. “We know that there are many clear-cut mental health consequences of the pandemic itself… If you add on top of that a momentous anniversary, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that there’s going to be a subset of people among us who are really suffering this time.”
For Shay and others who lived through or lost someone on 9/11, the 19th anniversary has already been uniquely challenging. Some are dreading having to spend the day away from their loved ones, due to coronavirus restrictions. Others are mourning the traditional ceremony held at Memorial plaza in New York City, a touchstone for many 9/11 survivors and loved ones. While it will still take place, the organizers intend to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines, reports the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, which spearheads the tribute. Family members typically stand up and read names of their fallen loved ones, but this year, they’ll be using recorded readings to cut down crowds, logistics, and time.
In mid-August, organizers announced they'd be cancelling the traditional light display, in which two beams of light are shot four miles into the night sky to represent the Twin Towers. That news frustrated many 9/11 families. “I was so upset,” Shay says. “I thought, ‘You can still have the Grammys, but God forbid you recognize the anniversary of my father’s death.’” The nonprofit Tunnel to Towers Foundation got involved, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offered to provide resources to enable the Tribute In Light to happen. A few days later, it was announced that the show was back on.
In general, Shay worries that this year's anniversary will be overshadowed by everything else happening in the world. Already, she’s seen people compare the death tolls of COVID-19 to that of the terrorist attacks on September 11.
“I know that someday 9/11 will just be something remembered in history textbooks, and that there are many more important things going on right now with the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic,” she says. “But I have one day a year. One day, and [I believe] how we celebrate that day this year will determine how it’s celebrated and honoured for the rest of history.”
How to prepare for a trauma anniversary in a pandemic
If you have a tough anniversary coming up, one of the best things you can do is to reach out to your support system, Dr. Grawert says. Start today. Shoot trusted loved ones a text to remind them about the date, then arrange a Zoom call or meet up with the people in your bubble, Dr. Jain suggests. If you typically like to commemorate the trauma anniversary, consider telling stories about the person you miss, sharing old pictures, or otherwise devoting time to remembering.
Many people find therapy and support groups incredible helpful. Shay says she’s made friends through Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit that offers long-term support to families affected by terrorism, connected her with other children who lost parents in 9/11. She’s still in a group chat with many of them today.
But not everyone finds observing these anniversaries healing, Dr. Grawert says. If you don’t, connecting with loved ones is still a good idea, she adds, even if you never bring up the past event. Take a drive, a vacation, watch a show together, or just spend some time chatting. Just being around a support system can bolster your resilience in stressful times, she says
Self-compassion is also crucial. “Acknowledge that this could be a tough week, and give yourself a break,” says Dr. Jain. She suggests preparing yourself for this year’s anniversary by coming up with some ideas for self-care activities you can practice over the next several days. “Staying one step ahead is huge,” Dr. Jain says. “Distract yourself, or do something just for you. Get some exercise, meditate, or do something relaxing. Reach out to a mental health professional if you feel you need to.”
If you weren’t personally affected by a traumatic event but are close to someone who was, an anniversary like this is always a good time to reach out. It might feel awkward, but Dr. Grawert says that more often than not, they’ll be happy to know you’re thinking of them and acknowledging what they’ve been through.
Especially important right now: Avoid comparing past events to current ones. For many, 2020 has been full of trauma — illness, the loss of loved ones to COVID-19, repeated and devastating instances of racial injustice, natural disasters. But as Shay pointed out to Refinery29, drawing parallels between then and now (by saying that COVID-19 has killed more people than the 9/11 attacks, for instance) is minimizing at best, and hurtful at worst. When speaking to a loved one on a trauma anniversary, take your cues from them, and try to focus on honoring the past event.
Shay, for one, says she’s looking forward to talking to her mother, Beth Mahon, this Friday on the anniversary – especially since she’s in Ohio, and not many folks around her were directly impacted by 9/11. They’ll probably FaceTime, and remember her dad together. Shay says hearing stories about him makes her feel better. Knowing that they’d have things in common today if he were still alive does too.
“The other day, I was literally five minutes late to something and I told one of my dad’s old friends that I was so flustered about it because I’m never late,” she says. “He made a joke about it. He was like ‘Tom Mahan!’” Shay breaks into a Long Island accent. “‘Tom Mahan does not live and breathe today.’ But he’s in me.”