University professor aids in counseling attack victims

Joanna Dornfeld

A young man and his pregnant wife stood amid the chaos in the New York City service workers’ union headquarters.

After barely making it out of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, he is thankful he will be there for his child’s birth.

Though he was able to escape, 26 of his friends and co-workers are presumed dead in the rubble. But he’s thankful for a little help from the University.

He called them angels.

They are University professor Pauline Boss and graduate students Christie McGeorge and Tai Mendenhall, who traveled to New York to counsel those most directly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I think it was the one way I could help,” McGeorge said. “I am not a fireman. I am not a policeman. I am a mental health professional.”

Boss, a family social science professor, spent the last 25 years developing the theory of ambiguous loss, which explains how an individual copes with a loss when there is no proof regarding whether the victim is alive or dead.

When she began, she had no idea her ground-breaking research would be the saving grace of hundreds impacted by the East Coast attacks.

The University is the only institution in the country that teaches its students about ambiguous loss.

The union leader knew of Boss’ research and invited her to come to New York and counsel union members and their families.

The union building is about six blocks from ground zero and provided a clear view of the destruction.

Some union members were in the World Trade Center when the airplanes struck. Many made it out. But 26 are presumed dead.

Gene Allen, University international programs office executive director, said that as soon as he saw what happened in New York, he knew Boss and her colleagues needed to be there.

On the same day Boss was invited to New York, Allen called her to suggest she help the victims. To show his support, Allen paid for the first team’s plane tickets to New York.

The Minnesota-New York Ambiguous Loss Project stemmed from the union’s initial request. University professors and graduate students will travel to New York every other week through at least December to counsel individuals.

Boss, McGeorge and Mendenhall left on the first project trip Sept. 16.

McGeorge and Mendenhall spent three days crisis-counseling union members and their families.

It was a like a chaotic emergency room for mental health, Mendenhall said.

“We were literally walking from floor to floor just stopping by people’s desks,” said Liz Wieling, family social science professor. Wieling went on the second trip, Sept. 26 to Sept. 29. She plans to travel to New York again in November and December.

The counselors walked from floor to floor checking on individuals, asking if they needed to talk. Many are not able to talk at home about their experiences and are grateful for someone to listen to them.

“What is surprising is that people welcomed them,” Boss said. “These are union workers. These are not the kind of guys who normally go to therapy.”

Though not everyone in the family social science department is able to travel to New York, each department member is playing a role in the project. Department faculty and graduate students are providing debriefing counseling for the New York teams as well as helping with publicity and fund raising.

The union provides room and board for the University team when it arrives in New York, but airfare expenses are mounting. It costs between $3,000 and $4,000 per trip.

A coalition of University offices and departments have donated funds to pay for plane tickets for the teams. The University will also be approaching independent foundations for funding.

Boss has been taking care of the administrative portion of the project. She is making contacts with therapists in the New York area for future counseling with the union members and their families.

“The next step we are moving to is family focus as the trauma ends,” Boss said. “To give special care to the families of the missing and finally to begin immediately to integrate New York therapists so we can go home in December.”

During the next trip, Boss will lead a workshop for New York City therapists about ambiguous loss. She will also lead a family meeting with the families of the union members still missing.

“The idea is to help them move forward,” Boss said, “even though they may not ever know if their loved one is alive or dead.”

 

Joanna Dornfeld covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]