"Learning to 'move on' after loss is more about finding peace than establishing closure."

Reflections on Trauma, Support and Faith:

A Conversation with LaVone V. Hazell

by Robert Zucker

 

LaVone Hazell is a certified family therapist, a New York State Licensed Funeral Director and certified by the Association for Death Education and Counseling both as a Death Educator and Grief Therapist. She teaches Death and Human Development, Psychology, Thanatology, and Bereavement Counseling at the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City. She is a member of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) and is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, and designated Diplomat in the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. LaVone is also the Designer and Project Director of the Palliative Care Training and Education Program (PTEP) for Minority Communities, sponsored by North General and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospitals, possibly the first such program focused on minorities in this country. LaVone was a joy to speak with for this interview. Her humor and loving spirit were at the core of all she shared with me.  I asked her to reflect on the extensive and daunting work she performed in the weeks following September 11th.

 

Zucker: First of all, what exactly is DMORT?

 

Hazell: When a mass disaster occurs, the first respondents at the scene are deployed by local authorities in the county of the accident. These authorities include the police and fire departments, the American Red Cross, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the Coast Guard, if warranted. Local authorities may request the assistance of DMORT to lend support and provide additional manpower. In 1966, President Johnson signed a directive requiring the NTSB to assume broader responsibilities following major transportation accidents. The National Disaster Management System (NDMS) supports this requirement by providing logistical support and operational personnel who deploy within two hours of notification as part of the NTSB "Go Team." NDMS primarily assists with fatality management by utilizing DMORT Teams. When a team member is deployed, he or she becomes a Federal employee, similar to a military reservist. Uniforms and deployment packs are mandatory and must be kept in readiness at all times. Responsibilities of DMORT include setting up temporary morgue facilities, victim identification, forensic dental pathology, forensic anthropology methods, processing, and preparation and disposition of human remains.

 

Zucker: What was your involvement in NYC?

 

We Are Under Terrorist Attack

Hazell: As a member of DMORT, I was activated on the 11th. When my commander called me, I assumed that the pilot of the plane that struck the first tower must have fallen asleep. That's what I said to my commander, and he said, "Dear, we are under a terrorist attack. Will you be available if we need you?" And I said, "Absolutely! There is no way I could just sit here and look at it on television." That night I got a call to report to Stewart Air force Base. We were all more or less required to stay together at LaGuardia Airport at the Marriott and to travel to the Family Assistance Center, the Medical Examiners Office, or Ground Zero. People always say Ground Zero, but there were really these three separate sights set up. Once assignments were given, we were on 12 hour shifts from 7am to 7 in the evening or from 7 in the evening to 7 am. We usually met each morning and talked about our assignments. Most of the time we met again in the evening to sort of debrief and talk about what happened during the day. In the beginning, no one knew exactly who was doing what - there were so many agencies involved. We were just trying to support and help each other - talk to families, take information, assist the detectives who were very protective of information, and so forth.

 

Pulling It Together

I started out at the Family Assistance Center and then I went into the Medical Examiners Office.  We did so many things. Let me tell you it was even down to scrubbing the Medical Examiners floors if we had to. Whatever was necessary, we were there. It was really a matter of pulling things together in a situation in which everyone was caught off guard. I think, in spite of any criticism, that we did the best we could under the circumstances. When you have a situation like this there is so much bureaucracy. It becomes a matter of, "Who is in control?" But once we decided that everybody had to work together, and once a hierarchy was put into place, things ran a lot smoother. But the hierarchy was not always clear. For example, police officers and fireman wanted to handle their own. So it became a matter of understanding that and assisting them. I didn't see it as being a competitive thing. I just saw it as being "what can we do as a network unit?" And of course people like my commander and the heads of the departments had to get together to decide who would do what. And then it filtered down to us.

 

Gradually people's roles became clearer. The anthropologists, for instance, went over with the dentists to one area. Do you see what I'm saying?  The funeral directors went with the data entry and did the death certificates. The pathologists went downstairs with the Medical Examiner.  As roles and specific skills were identified, the assignments became clearer.

 

As a mortuary officer and being funeral directors, we know what to look at in terms of death certificates and things of that nature. Some of us are trained in bereavement so some of us worked with families. It depended upon where our commander assigned us. I dealt with very sensitive data input from the morgue so that families could find out if their loved ones had in fact been located. Our intent was to get as many remains back to families so they could have something to grieve.

 

Supporting Each Other

There were at least 30 tables or more set up at the morgue for identification of human remains and there was a kind of honor guard for each of the officers that came in. You always knew when a police officer or fireman was being brought from Ground Zero because you would hear the motorcade. When they came in it was very very riveting. They would stand at command in two lines. An ambulance would come after the motorcade. Then the officer was removed, draped in a flag. A hat would be on top of the body. All of the officers would salute. The mortuary individuals would have a moment of silence, turn and then take the person in. This was happening consistently. It was very difficult as the officers came in to watch other officers break down - just totally break down. Some of them had lost five or six people. It was just awful. But there were people there to talk with the officers, and we would also pitch in and say, for instance, "Listen, I think there is a problem over here." We were supporting each other.

 

Zucker: How many times a day would the body of an officer be brought in, LaVone?

 

Hazell: It was all day and all night. We were there from the beginning, so you could initially say maybe at least 20 during the day and 20 at night.

 

Zucker: How long were you on duty?

 

Hazell: They usually don't want you to do more than two or three weeks. They want you to stop and debrief and then after a couple of weeks, you can come back. As I remember, and my recollection is not very clear, I had about two and a half sequestered weeks. So I more or less stayed peripheral after that - doing more voluntary sorts of things. We had families, for instance in the Bronx, that had lost loved ones, and I was called upon to talk to those families. So wherever I could help, I did. But remember also that plane crash in Queens! DMORT had to set up another team and I was asked to go down for that. I had to respectfully decline, because my mother was fading and she subsequently died. They make it very clear that family comes first. But many of my team- mates were involved for an additional two weeks with that disaster.

 

People in other states don't understand the magnitude of what happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. For instance, after the 11th I went to Las Vegas on vacation and people would say, "We are really sorry about what happened ... how many quarters do you want." End of story. But if you think about it honestly, Rob, when we are looking at television and see wars elsewhere, it's not "us" it's "them."

 

Zucker: How do you take care of yourself?

 

An Indelible Image

Hazell:   I'd been on other disasters - this wasn't my first. It's just that we'd never been faced with anything like this. And that's the problem. It was most difficult, personally, when my tour was over and I got back home. That's when, you know, the post- traumatic stress symptoms started coming up - not being able to sleep and you didn't know why you woke up every two hours but you just knew you were awake. But I knew what it was, being in the field of bereavement for so many years. Every time I see a picture of the planes going into the building I feel like it was the same day. That's an image that will stay with me for a long time.

 

Zucker: So it sounds as if you can easily be retraumatized.

 

Hazell: Well, no. Not retraumatized. No. Not good. I am easily put into a reflective mood, but I can function well. On a personal level, when I start to reflect, I do feel emotional pain. But I can usually either pray my way through it or take some deep breaths and keep going. If I was retraumatized, I would not hesitate to seek professional help. I've made thousands of referrals throughout the year, so if I can refer other people, I certainly can refer myself if I feel I need it. Definitely!  Although, sometimes when I'm referring someone else, I can sort of get my own $125 session for free.

 

Zucker:  So you can get some support on the sly?

 

Hazell: I sort of get those little freebies in here and there. I'm not going to lie. It's the truth!  He'll say, "How are you doing?" and I'll say, "Now that's the wrong question to ask." And then I sort of say, "This is not a good day. And I'm not sending you a check!"

 

I think the other thing that has been helpful is a group called WIT - Women in Thanatology. We are thirty-five women who meet once a year on a North Carolina college campus. We can't wear heels and stocking, no suits, no dress outfits. Very laid back. People, like Judy Stillion, created WIT five or six years ago to bring together women in order to keep the cycle of thanatology going. It's like a small conference, and it is a good time to talk about what's happened with us during the year. You can talk if you want to but you don't have to talk. People will just sit near you to just give you emotional strength. Some of us are women who have been in the field for many, many, years and some for only a small amount of years - but we all come together, by invitation, to really give each other a lot of support. This year the mood was very different.  It really was.  

 

Zucker: How else do you find support for yourself?

 

Turning To God

Hazell: I try to get to Church when I can. I know the pastor says, "I don't know where that child is." But I get there when I can. He won't see me this Sunday.

 

Zucker: Do you find that your faith is not dependent on the Church?

 

Hazell: A church is a building, and yes, I do believe that church is very, very, important. Absolutely. But you know what? I also feel that you commune with God wherever you are.  He's there no matter what.

 

Zucker: Considering all of the violence and cruelty around us, how do you reconcile your relationship with God?

 

Hazell: We are allowed to be angry at God. He understands. There are several verses in the Bible and the Koranwhich support that. You are allowed to be angry. And it will pass. You are allowed to say, "Why me?" God understands. Some people cling to the church and others want to give it up all together - especially where a child is involved. But that is temporary. It doesn't last. I've never seen that last. People don't just walk away. They may be angry for a while, but it passes. It really does. By the way, you also have to be able to talk to people who are atheists or agnostics. And you can't give them your faith. You've got to ask them what you can do to help them.

 

Zucker: There is much talk in the media about "closure." What does closure mean to you?

 

We Don't Simply ‘Get Over It'

Hazell: I don't use that word. There is no such thing. That is the absolute wrong word to use. I've heard grieving people say, "I wish people would stop saying that there is such a thing as closure."  At the Family Assistance Center, one of my students who is also a minister and a funeral director, introduced me to the family of a young African American woman who was at the World Trade Center and was missing. There were about thirteen people around a table. I sat with the mother and father and said, "I can't imagine how you feel. I see a minister is here. Do you have a church home?" They said, "Absolutely." And I said, "Look. Hold onto your faith." I knew, by where they said their daughter was in the towers at the time of the attack, that there was no way she could be alive, but you can't show this in your eyes to people (and you're trained not to). I also didn't espouse Kubler-Ross, because Kubler-Ross doesn't fit in a trauma situation. What I said was, "You have your family. You have support. Cling to each other until you get some news." Then I just allowed them to talk about who their daughter was and so forth. Weeks later, I saw that same student who had introduced me to this family, so I asked about them. He told me that since they figured that they would never find her, the family held a huge memorial service. Eight hundred people attended.  But then, one month later, the young woman was found - not all of her (and I'm getting chills now). She was identified through DNA. So instead of having another ceremony, the parents had her cremated and put in an urn to be buried later, when they die.

 

There is no such thing as closure. People here in America need titles and we need words to make us feel comfortable. First of all, grief is universal. We know that, right? But how we grieve is as unique as a finger- print. And I don't know how many times I've said that even if you are identical twins, you don't grieve in the same way. Now, having said that, what we do - and I've had some very heavy losses in the last six years - is we find a comfort zone within ourselves so that we can move on and continue. But we never move past the loss.

 

Creating Meaningful Rituals

So what is a good way to deal with this? Through ritual. Keep in mind that how we choose a ritual and how we revere our loved ones or our ancestors, is based on our culture, ethnicity and all of those other things. My ritual may not fit for you.  I set a symbolic table at any affair - Thanksgiving, Christmas - for the loved ones in my family who have died. They are never forgotten. That's very important for my family. And this year I intend to go to a wonderful store that is very pricey - on Madison Avenue - and I intend to get a ball for my Christmas tree that will say something about my mother, my sister, my father and my uncle, and my two cats. They were a part of my family. It's not drudging them up. It's giving their spirits their due.

 

Zucker: Your sense of humor seems to carry you through so many profound challenges, LaVone.

 

Hazell: Sometimes I go to bed at night and I'm so tired that I feel like I'm not going to wake up, and then I say, "God, I'm so tired." But wait now! He will give you what you ask for, so I say, "Let me make myself clear. I just need some SLEEP.  I'm not ready for eternal rest yet. I got too much work to do. I have to train too many people. Please let me just do that, and after that you can just do what you want!"

 

Zucker: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat.

 

Hazell: You take care and be blessed and be safe.