After 9/11, Some Found Healing by Helping

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Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

By Branch Editorial Team

After hearing the initial explosion on September 11, 2001, Bernard Thomas and his workmates ran to their office windows, which faced the World Trade Center in Manhattan. “We could see the smoke billowing and a plane circling, then aiming toward the second building before it hit,” he recalled. 

“The explosions were very violent, as debris and body parts were thrown clear across the  Hudson River and into parking lots in Brooklyn Heights; you could smell jet fuel in the air,” said Thomas. Having received training as a licensed master fire suppression piping  contractor and master plumber, I could visualize what was happening to the people  inside those buildings. This knowledge greatly impacted me both emotionally and  mentally. It’s one thing to hear about news on TV, it’s another to see someone jump out of a window. I will never forget it.” 

Thomas remembers his first opportunity to help others when the Brooklyn office buildings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, where he worked as a volunteer, kindly opened their lobbies to offer restrooms and refreshments to hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who were fleeing Manhattan and streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Twenty years after 9/11, Thomas. who now lives in Essex, Maryland with his wife, Bar bara, has never forgotten how he was affected.  

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“For the following six months, I would wake up in the middle of the night sweating, and  wondered, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ I kept seeing a plane going in through the World  Trade Center; I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Then I realized, and as we got counseling from our administrative offices, that it was post-traumatic stress. Eventually, it subsided  and I could sleep again; the memories wouldn’t be so invasive.” 

Relief also came from reaching out to help others who were struggling as he was. The ministry that he had shared in for years as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses took on a new role for him and many others. Sharing comforting words from the Bible “was good for us- -not to think only about our own feelings,” said Thomas. “As we approached one area where a lot of service workers from the World Trade Center lived, we thought about, not preaching to them, but how to appeal to their hearts and comfort them.” 

“While driving along in our ministry one day, we passed a parking lot where hundreds of commuters to the World Trade Center had parked their cars and had never returned. That scene, in a very intimate way, helped us see the impact on families.”

Helping others has long been linked to better emotional well-being in psychology research. The book “The Healing Power of Doing Good: The Health and Spiritual Benefits of Helping Others” describes “powerful” effects, even for helpers who’ve experienced trauma themselves. 

Now in their 70’s, Thomas and his wife, Barbara continue to find comfort from reaching out — this time in talking with pandemic-stressed neighbors, although now doing so through letters and telephone calls instead of going door to door. Jehovah’s Witnesses paused their in-person preaching in response to the pandemic in March 2020. 

Thomas shares encouraging scriptures that emphasize how sometimes, in the human experience, we have a day of disaster and we have no one else but God. “That’s what we conveyed to the people, that through prayer, knowing why these things happen and what God has in mind for the future, He can be a soothing and comforting support.” 

He also shares resources that have helped him, like articles on coping with trauma and loss on jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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