Caring for the Spirit

John D. Weaver, LCSW


 Lord, take me where you want me to go;

let me meet who you want me to meet;

tell me what you want me to say;

and keep me out of your way.


 Father Mychal Judge, OFM

NYFD Chaplain

R.I.P. September 11, 2001

Father Mychal will probably not be remembered as the first officially recorded fatality following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11th.  His legacy as a caring Franciscan priest, mentor and friend, will solidify his memory in the hearts of all those he touched in the 68 years that he was alive.  Becoming a fire chaplain in 1992 was a dream-come-true for Father Mychal.  I always wanted to be a priest or a fireman; now I'm both, he once said.  His dedication to New York firefighters would be tested on the 11th of September.  According to Cassian Miles, O.F.M., communications director for the Holy Name Province, Father Mychal was anointing a firefighter and office worker at the site.  He removed his helmet in prayer and was fatally struck in the back of the head by falling debris. 

St. Anthony Messenger - - 10/19/01

September 11, 2001 began as just another day for most Americans.  Things quickly changed, though, as the hideous terrorist plot began to unfold.   As a Disaster Mental Health (DMH) member of the American Red Cross (ARC) Aviation Incident Response (AIR) Team, I was called up immediately and for the next 12 days, I served as the Coordinator of the Family Assistance Center (FAC).  The FAC is a "safe haven" spot where family members can come together and share their thoughts, feelings, and memories with one another.  There they can also talk to mental health workers and members of the clergy, doing so in a secured place designed to protect their privacy.  Many prefer avoid the media, lawyers, and any others who might further victimize them at a time when they are quite vulnerable.

Part of our DMH role is to organize family member visits to the crash site. Most surviving family members need to visit the site - a visit that helps them accept their loss and begin to move forward with their suddenly altered lives.  These visits were followed by a multi-faith memorial services.  There participants are given a chance to formally honor those lost souls by mourning their deaths but also celebrating their lives.  About 500 family members and close friends of those lost on Flight 93 were served by our ARC team.  Helping us serve them were the warm wishes and prayers of people all over the world.  We received a marvelous array of flowers, cards, banners, gift baskets, comfort kits, and letters of support.  Especially helpful were the touching messages from innocent children, some of whom attended a school that was near the crash site.  These things all gave great comfort to the families and, when we closed the FAC, these items became part of the permanent memorial to those brave souls who lost their lives while protecting the lives of others.

My experiences with mass casualty incidents always sadden me (something that generally hits us as we end our work) and this was no exception.  In fact, this one was worse for me than usual.  I cried off and on, all the way home from western PA.  For several days thereafter, I found myself having what I've joking dubbed random acts of crying triggered by certain songs, pictures, or news reports.  That ran its course but two weeks later as I wrote a letter to my niece, I found myself tearing up again.  I had chosen to write the letter as a way to pass my time while on a bus ride to NY City.  I'd had two weeks rest and I was on my way there to join the larger, ongoing ARC World Trade Center (WTC) relief operation.  There the workers were helping in very similar ways, including the offering of site visits and memorial services.

During times of tragedy, one thing that is very important is support - support from family members, support from friends, support from others who care enough to share something of themselves when people are in need, and support from communities of faith.  Spirituality becomes a major concern for both the victims and the helpers.  For some, it will be spirituality centered in formal religious beliefs and activities such as the offering of prayers, attending church services, giving last rights, etc.  For others, it may simply be allowing time reflect on issues of their own life journey (and mortality) while communing with nature, preparing and sharing comfort foods, and/or feeding their souls in other ways that they might most their needs at that moment.


The grief that does not “speak” in some way – through crying,

talking, rituals, tributes, or creative expression – remains unresolved.

(Sarah York, 2000)

 I find that the longer I am involved in crisis intervention and disaster relief, the more I value resources to help address the spiritual issues that so closely relate to the mental health issues we face in this work.  Grieving victims and helpers need to find suitable means and opportunities for expressing their losses.  Part of this comes out through our typical DMH interventions, especially defusing and debriefing, but these brief encounters can only do so much.  Expressions of grief can and should also be drawn out through encouragement of participation in well-planned, carefully timed memorial services.  Sarah York has written an excellent book designed to help family members, clergy, funeral home staff members, hospice workers, and mental health professionals plan services and rituals that will help them say goodbye and begin to move forward with their lives.  Here is the reference:

York, Sarah.  (2000).  Remembering Well, Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

It is full of real-life stories and practical examples of ways to sensitively address all sorts of issues that arise as families begin to face the difficult decisions that arise when they loose someone they love.

One section of York’s book contains suggested readings, prayers, and blessings.  On pages 203-204 there is A Litany of Remembrance (see copy below) by Roland B. Gittelsohn that I've found to be especially helpful.  Adapted from a modern Jewish liturgy, this has been used as a responsive reading at several memorial services that have followed aviation incidents.  The service leader will read the first lines and the participants will reply by saying we remember them.  Following some incidents, we have also had this printed on small memorial cards (lavender card stock with deep purple print - 2 1/2" x 4") that can be given to family members, friends, and all support staff who attend the site visits/memorial services.  I never knew the original source till reading York’s book.


A Litany of Remembrance

Roland B. Gittelsohn


In the rising of the sun and in its going down,

we remember them.

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,

we remember them.

In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,

we remember them.

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,

we remember them.

In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn,

we remember them.

In the beginning of the year and when it ends,

we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength,

we remember them.

When we are lost and sick at heart,

we remember them.

When we have joys we yearn to share,

we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us,

as we remember them.

Gittelsohn, R. B.  (1975).  Gates of Prayer.  London: Central Conference of American Rabbis and Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, p. 552.

This material is from:

National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization that serves as the forum where organizations share knowledge and resources throughout the disaster cycle—preparation, response, recovery and mitigation—to help communities prepare for and recover from disasters. NVOAD has developed guidelines for offering spiritual care in disasters. If you would like to review those guidelines, here is a link button: