New York ceremony to honor University professor

Paul Sand

A University professor who has given much to the grieving families of the Sept. 11 attacks will be honored at a ceremony today in New York.

Pauline Boss, a professor in the family social science department and author of several books about family stress, will receive an award today for her work consoling families of members in New York’s largest building services union who were lost in the World Trade Center attacks.

“Pauline was always available, always there helping to make things work,” said Mike Fishman, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ president, the union Boss worked with.

Lorraine Beaulier, Boss’s former student and Fishman’s spouse, called Boss Sept. 12 and asked her to travel to New York to counsel family members of the deceased and missing union workers.

“At that time, you don’t say ‘no’,” Boss said. “You can’t say ‘no’ when you’re called in real life. The ivory tower (of academia) has to lead to real life in such times.”

Boss and several graduate students in the program traveled to New York the following Sunday and began helping the families deal with their loss under the Minnesota-New York Ambiguous Loss Project. The team set up in the union building break room, allowing members and their families full access to therapists.

According to Boss, the families were experiencing ambiguous loss, which happens when a person or family suffers a loss that remains unclear – with no verification of the person’s status as alive or dead.

“They wanted to talk with us; they wanted to talk to each other,” Boss said. “They wanted someone to listen to their story.”

The image of falling bodies and making eye contact with them as they passed by the towers’ windows is what bothered people the most, she said.

“The story I heard a lot was about the man’s tie flying behind him as he was going down,” Boss said.

Boss said she believes ambiguous loss to be the worse kind of family stress.

“It’s a bigger stress than having a death when there is a body to bury,” she said.

Obstacles arose in the process. Many union families do not speak English, are low-income and have multiple children, Boss said.

Also, most of the families don’t believe in therapy, but rather in community healing, Boss said.

In response, the team set up multiple-family meetings. Project members invited families to lunch and provided therapists at each table to talk with them.

Boss said the victims’ deep connections to family and community are a source of strength.

“When we say ‘bring your family,’ they’ll even bring the preacher. And they bring their parents; they bring extended family, not an isolated nuclear family,” she said.

Boss and the graduate students teamed with therapists from the Roberto Clemente Center and the Ackerman Institute of Family Therapy, which provided bilingual therapists.

It was irritating for families to be subjected to translation, Boss said.

“When you’re hurting and crying and in such pain, to have somebody work with you who is now looking at the translator and not you is an insult,” she said.

Liz Wieling, a family social science professor, joined Boss in New York late last September. Wieling, who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, was a tremendous help in counseling the families, Boss said.

Wieling and others who worked on the project hope to gauge the long-term effectiveness of the multiple-family meetings in the research phase of the project.

She said the team is approaching the research carefully.

“We’re very careful about the term ‘research,’ but it is the responsible and ethical thing to do to evaluate the multiple family meetings,” she said.

Wieling, who came to the University just weeks before the attacks, said she was impressed with Boss during their time in New York.

“Pauline is a role model and a mentor for me as an early career scholar,” Wieling said. “I think her being available for us, the faculty and students, as well as the families, was important.”

A wall will be unveiled in a ceremony that will honor the 24 union members who died in the attacks and those, like Boss, who helped the union in the past year, Fishman said. The ceremony will be held in front of the union’s headquarters, eight blocks from ground zero.