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Finding comfort in tragedy's midst

Crisis management consultants Robin Finegan and Krista Flannigan spent their careers working with victims, and the families of victims, of acts of terror and disaster. Now, in their new book, "Tragedy to Triumph: Lessons of Recovery and Triumph," Finegan and Flannigan share individual stories of healing. They were invited to discuss their book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt.

Bereavement Ritual

“I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing Eyes
I wonder if It weighs like Mine
Or has an Easier size.”
Emily Dickenson (1862)

Funerals and anniversary memorials are rituals that are symbolic and offer us a time to be reflective, a time to talk about past moments we’ve held close, a time to trade stories and share sadness, loss and laughter.  Our faith, our culture, and our family traditions offer us meaningful rituals, which we depend upon in times of suffering.  For some, these ancient rituals become the foundation for their healing.

Terrorism crashes into its victims’ lives like a jewel heist, intentionally stealing the most valuable, irreplaceable family gems.  For many survivors of the World Trade Center attacks, these gems were grown children, starting a life of their own, rewarding their parents with professional success and grandchildren. Violence leaves the survivors feeling as if they have been robbed of everything.  Some survivors reach with their last trace of hope and energy, to find some solace in bereavement rituals.  It is heartbreaking when grief stricken survivors discover that even their rituals have been vandalized by terrorism.


They had come to America from India when they were newlyweds.  Over the years, some of the Viswanathan’s extended family joined them to make a new life in New Jersey.  With two children, the petite soft-spoken Indian father worked long hours to support his family by selling shoes at a New York City department store.  The Hindu couple was determined to provide their son and daughter with the abundance of opportunities that had not been available to them.  Their stunningly beautiful daughter finished college as a typical energetic American student, along with her cousin and soul mate, Shrinida.  As they had planned, after college they both went to work together for a bond trader in New York City.

Nithya was a joy to her family and was an essential part of Shrinida’s life.  They did everything together. Nithya and Shrinida used to tell each other how they could never live without the other.  On the morning of September 11, 2001, Nithya was at her desk in Tower Two in the World Trade Center.  Shrinida had an appointment that would keep her out of the office that morning.  Nithya never returned to her adoring family.

It was December 2001; three months after terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Centers, before Nithya’s family could bring themselves to conduct funeral rites.  Nithya’s remains had not been recovered from the rubble at Ground Zero.  In traditional Hinduism, a person is cremated on the day of death, if possible on a funeral pyre.  Between three and ten days after the funeral, the remains of the cremated body are buried in a special area of ground or they are released in a river, preferably, the Ganges River that is thought to be holy.  The cremation is believed to re-integrate the family of the deceased into their social environment. Cremation of the body also allows the spirit of the one who died to travel on its way.  At the death of a relative, a traditional Indian Hindu family living in America would have the body of the deceased cremated.  The family would either travel themselves, or they would send the remains to relatives in India who would carry out the immersion of the remains in the holy Ganges River.

But, as it was with so many families of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there was no body to formally cremate or to bury.  Therefore the small amount of comfort, which might be achieved through this ritual, was taken from the Viswanathans as well.

It was extremely difficult and heartbreaking for mothers, fathers, and spouses to acknowledge that their loved ones had died on September 11, when there was no physical evidence.  Many mothers would come to the September 11 Family Assistance Centers but could not bring themselves to make an application for a death certificate.  “What if my son was found and I had given up hope?  I could never forgive myself,” they worried.

Tragedy forces us to lose control of things.  This Hindu family could no longer choose to spend holidays with Nithya.  They no longer had a choice about missing her on birthdays or celebrating the birth of her children, but they were not going to give up control over how they let her go.  Nithya’s family needed to let her spirit travel on even if there were no evidence of her passing.

The family made arrangements with the New Jersey State Police and on a sunny but cold and windy December morning they took their traditional bereavement ritual and found a new way to make it meaningful.

For victims whose bodies were not recovered after September 11, earth from Ground Zero was collected and respectfully put into an urn and given to surviving family members.  After officials at the New Jersey Family Assistance Center presented an urn and an American Flag to the grateful family, the Viswanathans boarded a New Jersey State Police boat at Liberty State Park.  The park sits directly across the Hudson River from the site of the World Trade Center.  From the park you could see the constant floodlights illuminating the continual recovery effort tucked behind the shore front buildings.  This was not the first trip these dutiful State Police officers had taken across the Hudson River with grieving family members since September 11.  Their new-found mission of transporting survivors across the river from Liberty State Park in Jersey City to Ground Zero had begun to take an emotional toll on the normally hardy men as their marine vessel was transformed into a vessel of comfort.

Not designed to accommodate passengers, the wooden patrol boat had no seats on its deck.  The nine members of Nithya’s family, her finance, the petite holy man in a traditional robe and worn out tennis shoes, Carol, the family’s victim advocate, and I boarded the boat with assistance from the gentle-men of the New Jersey State Police.  Our group was given instructions to hold onto a rope that was strung from one end of the deck to the other. 

For the grieving family, the green waters of the Hudson River would replace the waters of the holy Ganges River and the State Patrol officers and victim advocates would serve as invited guests at the service.  As the patrol boat trolled the river, a traditional Hindu priest scanned the cold choppy water for nuances that would reveal the exact spot where the ceremony was destined to take place.  His concentration was intense, as if he were searching for a particular constellation in the Milky Way.  While the priest searched, the proud father pulled out a picture of Nithya and Shrinida dressed in traditional Indian festive attire.  He found the guests at the floating service to be a compassionate and interested audience as he repeated stories of his precious daughter.

Despite the navigational obstacles of swirling crosswinds, the priest chose a spot somewhere in the middle of the Bay, 300 yards from the Manhattan shoreline.  The rumble of construction work at Ground Zero served as background music and behind the boat, Lady Liberty stood, looking on like a guest at the funeral of a comrade.  The priest and the mother proceeded to do the impossible by lighting candles in the blustery December wind.  The family was determined that they would honor their daughter with a traditional ceremony no matter what obstacles they faced.  They found a morsel of much needed comfort in their ritual.

The weeping family leaned over the side of the wooden patrol boat and gently lowered a wreath of flowers and floating candles onto the water.  Nithya’s tearful father opened the urn and released the earth from the container, scattering the contents among the white caps.  As the family, heavy with sadness, added rose petals into the water, the priest gently put his arm around them and turned their backs away from their symbolic offering.  With this action they let Nithya’s spirit go.  With Ground Zero directly in their sight now, they closed their eyes and said their private good-byes. 

For many families, including my own, it is customary to gather after a memorial ceremony to share a meal and stories.  Under normal circumstances, this gathering takes place in a large room where the service was held or at the comfortable home of a friend or family member.  Congregation or family members bring an overabundance of hams, fried chicken and chocolate cakes.  Relatives who live far away take the opportunity to reconnect with one another and teenage cousins deposit themselves in front of the TV set.  Although this was not a normal circumstance, the emotional needs for communion were the same.

As the boat returned to the Family Assistance Center from the emotional peregrination, Carol and I accompanied the Viswanathan family to the “big top” tent where the Salvation Army canteen had been set up for the past three months to feed the hundred or so who worked at the Center.  Salvation Army and Red Cross volunteers in a collusion of support took over the duties of hosts for the grieving family.  A chilly dimly lit tent and gray metal folding chairs replaced the comfort of a friend’s living room.  A generator blowing hot air in from one corner kept the space just warm enough so as not to see your breath but not enough to take your coat off.  Red Cross breakfast omelets, still being heated by sterno in large foil containers were available as a substitute for fried chicken and potatoes.  The buffet was a sumptuous display of hospitality and compassion. The family longed for the hospitality, not the trappings.  These gracious people just wanted to linger together, not wanting to break away from this last formal good-bye to Nithya. 

Victim advocates find themselves frequently embraced by families they support through difficult times.  An intimacy is created by the advocate’s participation and care.  Under the cover of the tent, Nithya’s aunt and uncle each talked over one another, urgently wanting to share their favorite stories of Nithya with Carol and I.  Nithya’s gentle father pulled out her picture again and asked both of us if we had seen the “beautiful picture of Nithya and Shrinida” and told the same story about how she loved Christmas time despite her Hindu upbringing.  No one was hungry, no one ate, but the stories they told and the company they kept nourished them.

When Nithya’s taciturn mother began to show signs of weariness, the family knew it was time to leave.  Each family member hugged Carol and I as they passed by, sweetly thanked each of the volunteers behind the canteen lines, and walked away arm-in-arm.   

“You have so much compassion in your eyes when you are with these people.  It must be hard to go to so many funerals,” the 72-year-old Salvation Army volunteer who had been compassionately serving meals at this canteen for two months whispered to me as we watched the family walk away.

“Hey, you serve a compassionate cup of coffee and that may be the very thing they needed the most,” I said with all due respect.

Excerpted from “Tragedy to Triumph: Lessons of Recovery and Triumph,” by Robin Finegan and Krista Flannigan. Copyright © 2004 by Robin Fudge-Finegan, Krista Flannigan. Published by Prairie View Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.