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Uncomfortably Numb

Everybody reacts to tragedy differently. Just ask the volunteers at the Centre for Living with Dying.

By Kelly Luker

FOR EVERY PERSON who weeps over the tragedy that changed our world Sept. 11, how many feel simply numb or confused? Well, a lot, according to the volunteers at the Centre for Living with Dying, a nonprofit organization that has been offering free grief counseling to the people of Silicon Valley for the last quarter-century.

Located in the 143-year-old James Lick Mansion, the Centre offers support to those affected by the death or serious illness of a loved one, loss, trauma or grief for anyone who calls or walks through the doors. That includes folks who don't exactly know what we're feeling.

"I've also felt kind of anesthetized," admits the Centre's executive director Al Platt. He knows his way around the valleys and peaks--if there are any--to the emotions following trauma and loss.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Platt has seen his organization's workload increase by 20 to 25 percent.

Apparently, everyone is a little confused by their reaction to the events.

"The calls we're getting," reports Platt, "are from people who say, 'I'm not sure what's going on with me. I'm overwhelmed with this and don't understand why I'd identify with something so far away.'

They begin to understand that it's a universal identification."

Platt says he got the full impact of how many were identifying, either directly or indirectly, when the Centre held a vigil on the evening of Sept. 19. More than 200 showed up to light candles, offer words of support or read a poem. Platt tells me that confusion was in abundance that evening.

"I sat in a group of people who said ...'Why don't I feel?'" he recalls.

Platt has an answer, though it's not a nice and tidy one. It has to do with the complicated skein of emotions that make up grief. Once taboo in this culture, grief is getting its rightful place in the spectrum of feelings, thanks to the breakthrough work of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the follow-up efforts of daytime talk shows.

Many people are now familiar with the five stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But it's rarely a "linear process," explains Hospice of the Valley bereavement coordinator Chris Taich, MSW.

"Everyone reacts differently with their grief," she says, explaining the aftermath of Sept. 11. "For some, they re-experience an earlier loss. Other people, they go into a state of shock and overwhelm. Either ones are normal reactions."

I mention to both Taich and Platt how I find myself lately wanting to escape into the soothing strains of shopping mall Muzak, to find solace in retail therapy.

"Psychic diversion," is what Platt calls it. "It's what we do to distance ourselves from our feelings."

The Centre was begun by a woman who had experienced a serious loss, but found nowhere to turn that didn't cost a lot of money.

"Often, when people lose a loved one,"says Platt, "They're not only robbed of that person, but of their financial means as well."

That woman, Mary Anne Kelly, has now moved on, leaving Platt to continue her work.

The Centre is there for those who are grieving, or worried about not grieving, as long as needed.

"This culture says, 'Take two to three days, then go back to work,'" observes Platt. "What if you're not ready? We have clients who have gone through the grief process for a year and still need support."

I ask Platt if he has any idea where our national consciousness will be on the grief chart several months from now.

"People say that in six months we'll be back to our old patterns," says the director, "but I don't think so. This is the single largest tragic phenomenon in our country's history on one single day."

"There's no time limit on this grief thing," he reminds me. "It will reappear, it will resurface, and it will have a universal impact."

For more information on the Centre for Living with Dying, call 408.980.9801 or visit them on the web at www.thecentre.org.

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From the October 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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