- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2001

As we mark a month of mourning in the wake of our national tragedy, we see signs of heightened security going up all around the nation's capital, further fueling our fears of an uncertain future.
Many are confused by the mixed messages that indicate a bunker mentality as streets are barricaded, subway and airport security is increased, and identification cards become a mandatory accessory.
For some, especially those who lost loved ones and co-workers in the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the grieving still dominates our lives. For some, missing bodies have yet to be laid to rest.
Business for Dawn M. Higgins, an Alexandria psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss education and counseling, has yet to slack off since that fateful date that changed the way liberty-loving Americans go about their daily routine.
In fact, for Ms. Higgins, whose private practice is aptly named the "Language of Loss," distress calls have picked up since Sunday when the United States started bombing raids in Afghanistan.
"A fair amount of people are still in shock," Ms. Higgins said.
It's the fear factor. Folks "feel at war here," she said. "People are having a tough time with visible signs [of war] here in D.C."
The attack on the Pentagon, the threats against the U.S. Capitol and the White House, and the closing of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport all contributed to those visible signs of war. In addition, transit officials want to place cameras on subways and buses, partially because of a scare with a deranged Maryland man waving a bottle of cleaning fluid. Police are closing streets around the Capitol, and a Virginia man was thought to be the victim of an anthrax attack, which later turned out not to be true.
No wonder many of Ms. Higgins' clients are still having nightmares.
They are worried about an act of retaliation here because this is the seat of the U.S. government. They are worried about a biological or chemical threat.
Ms. Higgins was a free-lance writer who became a psychotherapist specializing in grief counseling for children and families after writing about parent-child losses.
"When I got into this line of work, I never thought I'd be involved with anything of this magnitude," she said.
Besides appearing in local television interviews, she has been contracted by several area businesses to provide individual and group grief- and trauma-counseling services. She could not disclose the companies because of confidentiality concerns.
"Many people are having all the symptoms of grief as though they had a death in the family," Ms. Higgins said. In particular, they experience a loss of security and a disruption in routine.
"We need to make them feel safe, [feel] that everything's OK," she said. To that end, re-establishing routine is of the first order.
In her workbook, also called "The Language of Loss" which will be released Nov. 1, when she expects the holiday season to only exacerbate September's fears and anxieties Ms. Higgins offers practical suggestions on how to cope with anxiety and fear after a traumatic event.
"Find a spiritual activity and make it more of your life," she said. By that she means do whatever "brings you closest to nature," something that makes you sigh and say, "life is really good."
For her, it's sailing. For another, it might be sitting on the back porch and watching your children play. It might a swinging a golf club or a singing a gospel tune. For me, it's communing with God and nature while I walk along the beach.
Of course, Ms. Higgins also stressed the importance of exercise, a nutritious diet and a good night's sleep. She actually said: "I tell patients to eat an apple a day." An admonition: Lay off the alcohol; it's a depressant.
Ms. Higgins said difficulties often arise in families because not everyone grieves in the same manner. But we must remember "that we are all in this together."
"We are all devastated," she said.
Not to generalize, but she says men tend to cope by getting physically active or burying themselves in their work. Women tend to stay close to home and want to talk out their feelings. Talking, she said, helps desensitize the trauma.
"Do whatever makes you feel good to feel comfortable or safe," she said. Her tall task is to "help people live again and feel some joy."
Those who survive a traumatic experience tend to have one of two reactions. Some say they refuse to live in fear and intend to go on with their lives and not give in to terrorism. "They believe God will take care of them," she said
Others curtail their activities and prepare for the worst, including buying gas masks. Some of her clients have experienced an overriding feeling of guilt as though they did something wrong to provoke the attacks.
I fall into the former category. We can prepare for the worst, but I don't believe we can cover all the bases, no matter how hard we try, even with the best security forces or technology measures our money and might can buy. Americans, unfortunately, are joining the rest of the world's citizens, who have learned to live with these terrorist threats every day.
I joked about a family member who has been searching the Internet for a gas mask. But Ms. Higgins gently suggests that we not pass judgment on with other's coping mechanisms. "This is all new. We don't know what's right," she said. "I don't think anything is irrational anymore."
Even she seeks solace among a group of therapists who meet to help each other cope. "Every time I listen to a client relive the event, I'm reliving it, too," she said.
Don't feel ashamed to seek counseling if you feel your fear is immobilizing you. On the other hand, Ms. Higgins also said it's important for people to know that it's all right to feel happiness again. To have some joy does not mean you are dishonoring the dead or the country's ordeal.
Surprisingly, Ms. Higgins does not adhere to the principle known as "closure" for people who have experienced a loss. "I don't want you to close it off; I want you to find a place for it to fit into your life now," she said.
As we deal with our sense of grief and loss at this death in our American family, we would do well to heed Ms. Higgins' words of wisdom from the "Language of Loss."
Ms. Higgins can be reached at 703/683-0041 or through her Web site: www.languageofloss.net.

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