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Say Their Names: The Role of Ritual in Healing

Traumatic bereavement expert explores the power of collective commemoration

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On Sept. 11, 2021, our nation will mark the passage of 20 years since the most harrowing day in modern American history. The terrorist attacks shook our country to its core, undermining feelings of invulnerability and making Americans question their safety and security.

Two decades later, people continue to grapple with how to process the tragedies that took place when terrorists hijacked airplanes that brought down the twin towers, crashed into the Pentagon, went down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and killed 2,977 people.

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One focus of the commemoration of this tragedy is a rite of remembrance: the reading of the names of those who died on 9/11. This has been an annual ritual since the first memorial ceremony, held in 2002. Family members speak the names of their loved ones at the World Trade Center Memorial Plaza, punctuated by six moments of silence that correspond to all three attacks.

spinner image Camille Wortman
A clinical health psychologist, Camille B. Wortman's research focuses on how people are affected by the sudden, traumatic death of a loved one.
Courtesy Camille B. Wortman

The ceremony, which takes over three hours, is attended by thousands of visitors and is televised. The tone of the gathering is somber and participants bring placards, photos or personal items to the commemoration. Many of the readers are tearful, their voices cracking as they pronounce their loved one's name. Some offer poignant tributes or messages to the deceased.

But this event is more than just habit or tradition. Research indicates that rituals like this ceremony can promote healing and facilitate the grieving process. When people come together to express their grief publicly, it validates their individual pain while providing support to the group as a whole. In this way, rituals connect people to something greater than themselves. They also provide order and stability in times of chaos. This is true for all Americans impacted by 9/11, but especially those who lost loved ones on that day.

Some surviving family members and friends report that they feel a strong connection with their loved one during the name-reading. Others find meaning in a ceremony that annually reaffirms our nation's commitment to never forget the tragic events of 9/11, even as decades pass. And the ceremony constitutes a powerful bonding experience for families who share a common loss. The 9/11 family members report that they find it comforting to connect with those who have endured similar hardships. Many are surprised by the intensity of grief that can resurface at various times, not just on the anniversary.

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9/11 family members speak the names of their loved ones at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum plaza.
Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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The ceremony also holds significance for those who did not know anyone who died on 9/11. Some note that the ceremony helps them to keep things in perspective, and to recognize how lucky they are to be alive. In many ways, this commemoration helps Americans to honor and appreciate those who risked their lives to protect our own.

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Over the years, there has been some discussion of doing away the reading of the names ceremoney. Each time, an overwhelming public expression of support signifies the ongoing power and importance of this ritual. The most recent objection came in 2020, when COVID-19 precautions prompted organizers to use a prerecorded reading of the names piped into Memorial Plaza. Many families were upset, maintaining that the emotional impact of the occasion would be reduced. Frank Siller, chairman of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation — a nonprofit organization dedicated to the memory of fallen firefighter Stephen Siller — said the live reading of the names was “an essential and irreplaceable tribute.” Siller's foundation held its own memorial ceremony a few blocks away, at which members were permitted to read their loved one's names aloud while keeping a safe distance.

But the reading of the names is not the only ritual that resonates and provides healing on 9/11. Millions of Americans engage in community service, transforming 9/11 from a day of tragedy into a day for helping others. In 2009, President Barack Obama designated 9/11 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. “Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11,” he said in 2011. Websites and organizations such as and AmeriCorps allow volunteers to select opportunities for service in their community. Some people honor the day by donating to 9/11 charities or participating in a running, walking, biking or stair-climb event.

Similar to the reading of the names, performing good deeds annually is a positive tribute to those who were killed on that day.

The 20th anniversary of September 11th is a time for reflection and contemplation, and the rituals we perform on this day have a profound capacity for healing, not only for those who lost a loved one at 9/11, but for our nation as a whole. Americans vowed to “never forget” what happened on that tragic day. Each year on Sept. 11, rituals such as the commemoration ceremony and helping others are instrumental in connecting us to our past as well as guiding us forward. They serve to validate our grief, help us find comfort in others, and ensure that those who died are given the honor and remembrance they truly deserve.

Camille B. Wortman, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York. Her research focuses on bereavement, with an emphasis on how people are affected by the sudden, traumatic death of a loved one. She has written four books, including one on traumatic bereavement, as well as more than 100 articles and book chapters dealing with grief, loss and trauma. Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Wortman was asked to design a training program for therapists on how to treat traumatic bereavement.

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