Support after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York

To supporters and professionals

After the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, Dr. Boss was asked by a building services company at the World Trade Center to care for the families of those who had gone missing there.


Thirty-two days after the attack, the first meeting for the families of the missing was to be held by a team of therapists from Minnesota and New York who had been convened.


Training was provided to the therapists prior to the family meeting. The training began with a theoretical perspective on ambiguous loss and the different reactions and challenges it can cause, and was incorporated into the therapists’ own work on ambiguous loss reflection before the sessions, as well as a deeper understanding of their cultural background.


At the family meetings held after that training, the following guidelines were adapted.


  1. Gather the families in one room and give their experience a name: “ambiguous loss.
  2. Help the families gather as much information as possible.
  3. Provide a safe setting.
  4. Discourage the tendency to cancel rituals and celebrations.
  5. Don’t use the word “closure.”
  6. Reconstruct family roles, rules, and rituals so that the family can function.
  7. Check to see if there are family secrets.
  8. Talk about hope and optimism.
  9. Normalize ambivalence.



The family members who attended the meeting said:


 “This has been a great help.”

 “I feel that today people listened to my pain and understood my situation.”

“This was the first time I’d ever spoken about this in front of my children. It was very important to me.”


Dr. Boss notes that PTSD treatment alone is not enough when it comes to helping families of missing persons. While it is important to refer people with serious psychological problems to the appropriate professionals, many other people can recover on their own if they have an environment in which they can feel understood and accepted.


After the 9.11 terrorist attack, many families of the missing took the next step after attending family meetings coordinated by Dr. Boss.




Pauline Boss, Healing loss, ambiguity, and trauma: A community-based intervention with families of union workers missing after the 9.11 attack in New York City. J Marital and Family Therapy. 29(4). 455-467. 2003.