During the early days after Sept. 11, people were constantly providing me with reading materials. There were the religious, the spiritual, the grieving, the healing, the funny, the sad, the picture books and the almost novels.
I read a few pages out of several, a couple of chapters out of one or two, and I think I only finished one.
I noticed in many of the books a constant theme about the stages of grieving and the "time will heal" message. I don't know about anyone else, but when someone tells me "it takes time," I get frustrated. That phrase is in the category of "this too shall pass." I want what I want and I want it right now! I wanted to heal immediately, for everything to be back to normal, for the hurt to stop and the pain to go away.
Not very realistic and I know that. My wife, Cheryle, was in the Pentagon when it was attacked, and I knew she was not coming back. But I think I was feeling the same as everyone else felt at some point during those first days and weeks. Then something happened to me that took the pain and lessened it to the point where I only felt it in those moments of loneliness.
A friend of mine, John, who works with the Salvation Army, asked me for my help. It was the first hours of that first day, but I knew what I had to do. It was more than intuition. It was the feeling of something changing in me, of feeling a guiding hand, as if I were being led. In the midst of all the confusion and fear I felt a calmness. When John put his hand on my shoulder and told me it would be okay, it was like getting verification and validation of what I was already starting to feel.
There are supposedly seven stages of grief. I can look back and count four distinct phases I went through, and sometimes still have to go through to some extent again.
First, there is absolute frustration, confusion, denial, hopelessness, self-pity and blankness. In those first hours, days and weeks, I saw many family members still trying to walk through those emotions. Some are still, even now, in this stage.
For me, that first stage went by quickly. I don't know if it was because of my military training or understanding that I could not spend too much time in certain places of my mind and remain sane.
Perhaps it was something else that pushed me forward. On the second morning, after only a few short hours of restless sleep, I got up and knew I had to go back to the Pentagon. My heart told me that Cheryle was gone, but my mind was still clinging to a few threads of hope. I felt a compelling need to go back and help, that there was something else I was supposed to do.
The phrase "you have to give it away to keep it" kept going through my head. I just knew that I had to go back and help others, and that if I did, I would be okay. Some would call that faith and maybe that’s what it was. I do know that the word God was coming out of my mouth a lot that morning and it was not part of a hyphenated word like so many other times in my life.
I didn’t understand this drive to help that first morning, but by the second day, I was beginning to. I worked that day with everyone I could and went out of my way to ask others if I could do anything for them. I genuinely wanted to do something for someone else, and I felt that each time I helped someone, I was being supported and uplifted myself.
During the next week, I was provided the absolute blessing of working with the other family members at the Family Assistance Center set up less than a mile from the Pentagon.
I know now that God was providing me with an opportunity to go through the numerous emotions and fears very quickly.
He was also providing me with some wisdom or clarity of mind to understand what I was feeling. But the real miracle was that I started to understand that I was being given those opportunities to heal and understand so that I could pass them along to others.
Today, I fully understand that I was chosen that day to help others. At the time, it was something very new to me.
The second phase of my grieving process started with that seed of hope given to me by my friend in the Salvation Army: Getting to the place where you understand that it will be okay. You don't know when or how, but you just know it will happen. I don't think that is intuition. I believe it is the start of a belief in something, someone more powerful than myself providing me the answers a little bit at a time. Now that you could call faith!
I have also learned something else about myself. I constantly have to go back and reaffirm that second phase lesson. I suspect that others feel this way too. I cannot learn a lesson once and be forever good or well. In fact, most of my lessons at life have been through trial and error and most of them on the error side. Faith is different in the sense that if I do not reaffirm it, it can go away. When I lose faith, I replace it with self, my ego, me, the big I. None of these creatures is much good without that faith.
I still can not tell you what the seven stages of grief are. In fact, I don't know if I want to find out. What if I missed one? Would that mean I have to go back and try this all over again? I certainly hope not.
The work has only now begun for me. Almost a year now and I continue to understand more each day that I must use these great gifts God has given me. I must use them to help others. My greatest fear is that if I do not, those gifts may be taken away, and I don't want to become that type of man.