U professor honored for 9/11 counseling work in New York

Chad Hamblin

Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, two labor unions responsible for many World Trade Center workers asked University professor Pauline Boss to come to New York City and counsel families of the missing.

Five weeks after the attacks, Boss, along with two faculty members and six graduate students from the University, led a team of 20 New York therapists to organize the first of many family meetings.

Boss, a professor in the College of Human Ecology, will be honored Friday in New York City for her efforts.

She will be recognized alongside Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., at an event sponsored by the Service Employees International Local 32BJ Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100 Union, the unions who called her to New York.

After the attacks, nearly 3,000 people lost their lives. Approximately 289 bodies were found intact.

More than half of the total victims’ bodies were never returned to their families.

Boss said many of those families were dealing with what she calls “ambiguous loss.”

People experience ambiguous loss when they do not know if their loved one is alive or dead, Boss said.

“You have loss but you don’t have clear-cut death,” she said. “So what you have is the stress of ambiguity.”

“One might say it’s much more difficult to make sense out of this kind of loss,” she said.

When counselors met with union families, they would talk with each other, said John Hammill, deputy communication director for SEIU Local 32BJ.

“We would help them feel that it wasn’t their fault and not their deficiency,” Boss said.

“When our members were in desperate need of assistance, (Boss) stepped up big time,” Hammill said. “She’s a very dear friend to this union and to working people.”

All proceeds from the event will help fund the creation of the Endowed Chair in Family Stress and Resilience at the University’s College of Human Ecology.

“The chair is intended to honor Pauline’s life work and see that the work continues,” said Pamela Lowe, director of advancement at the College of Human Ecology.

Boss wrote a book on ambiguous loss published in 1999, but her work started almost 25 years earlier in her dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she said.

Since then, she has written 12 journal articles on ambiguous loss and said she is working on another book set to come out next spring.

Boss will retire from the University in May 2005, but said she hopes to carry on writing.