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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Providing 'emotional first aid'
Colin Murray Parkes
Dr Murray Parkes: "None of them want vengeance"
Psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes has just returned from New York, where he lent a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on for the British families mourning loved ones killed in the US terror attacks. He was in the first team of counsellors and police officers sent over by the Foreign Office.

It's a sad, sad place, New York at the moment. It's normally an exciting, bustling city, but even the cab drivers aren't joshing like they used to.

I first went to ground zero with two other counsellors - all three of us cried

I couldn't go to 'ground zero' itself because it's a scene of crime. Not even the police were able to get beyond the barriers sealing off the area.

But if you walk down Broadway, you can look into the streets leading to the disaster and see the ruined buildings, the rescue workers coming in and out, and the stream of lorries carrying rubble away.

For bereaved families, that's what they need to see.

Rescuers recover a body
Rescue workers in silence around a recovered body
I first went with two other counsellors so we could warn the families in advance.

Different people cry for different reasons, and in my case, it was seeing a group of rescue workers who'd obviously been working hard on the site.

They came off their shift, took off their masks and just put their arms around each other.

You could see that they were having a hell of a time. It just caught my heart.

Mourners making the stars and stripes with coloured candles in Union Square
He took the families to see memorials across the city
Saturday a week ago, at the annual general meeting of Cruse [a bereavement care organisation], we got a message from the Foreign Office asking if we could get 40 counsellors to fly to New York at short notice. Within an hour, we had our 40 volunteers.

Colin Murray Parkes looks at his photos from NY
Reviewing his photos of the devastated city
I flew out the next day with about 20 police family liaison officers, and within two days the first team of 10 counsellors joined us.

Almost as we got off the plane, we were told that the first families had arrived.

Very often, it wasn't the person most affected by the bereavement sent out - there were many widows and children who didn't come because they were too upset.

Instead it was a brother or cousin sent to New York to find out what was going on. So we weren't necessarily dealing with people who were themselves enormously traumatised - some were, but not all of them.

Hand-holding capacity

Most who came out were eager for information; they wanted to know what had happened, where they stood.

One of the bereaved ladies muttered, 'I could murder a drink', so I raided the consulate's gin supply

The police officers provided the families with useful factual information, such as what to do if a body is recovered and the legal aspects of inquests.

Our role was to give them what you might call psychological first aid - there was very little we could do in the way of counselling in just two or three days.

We were more concerned with meeting them at the airport, accompanying them around the city, and putting them in touch with a bereavement organisation back home.

Memorials to missing Britons
Posters of missing Britons at Our Lady of the Rosary
Last Thursday we went with the families to the prayer service at St Thomas Church.

We first went to the British consul's house, where he welcomed us and gave us a soft drink.

Relatives at NY prayer service
Grieving relatives at last Thursday's prayer service
One of the bereaved ladies muttered to me, 'I could murder a drink at the moment', so I raided his supply and poured a stiff gin into her orange juice.

The service itself was quite lovely.

We all felt that this was the world grieving, that we were part of something bigger than ourselves, and that was very helpful to the bereaved families.

Memorial to the dead

None who came out have recovered a body.

People have got this idea that 'Maybe my husband's lying unconscious' or 'Maybe he's forgotten his name'.

There are no unidentified people lying in New York hospitals

But there are no unknown, unidentified people lying in New York hospitals - we've checked.

One very difficult thing these families are facing is that there may never be a body to bury. Funerals make death real, so it's hard to believe that you've lost someone when you don't have a body.

But there are ways of doing this. When the HMS Sheffield went down in the Falklands, they marked it with a buoy and made it a war grave. I've taken the bereaved there so they can throw a wreath on the water to make it real for them.

The ruins before they were dismantled
Part of the ruins will be kept for a memorial
The authorities in America need to think very carefully about what they need to do at the site of the disaster.

In my view, the sooner they can get their investigations over and turn it into a grave, the better.

After all, it could take months or even years before they excavate every single bit of the devastated towers.

There comes a point when that ceases to be useful. I think they're approaching that point. They need to somehow find a shrine for the dead.

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See also:

26 Sep 01 | Americas
23 Sep 01 | Americas
12 Sep 01 | UK
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