Remembering 9/11 can help you understand the bereaved

On September 11, 2001, life in the United States skidded to a stop when nearly 3,000 people perished because of terrorist attacks. If you were the age of a young school child or older, you remember the moment you heard the news.







It was a few minutes after 9:00 a.m. when the phone rang. My friend’s voice was clipped. “Are you watching TV?”

My husband was sound asleep after his night shift. I’d taken our younger children to elementary school. Back at home I folded laundry while our oldest daughter painted on canvas. Soon we’d delve into the academic part of her seventh grade curriculum. My friend knew I homeschooled during the day, so it was odd she’d call, let alone assume the TV might be on during school hours. “No. Why?”

“Turn it on.”

“To what?”

“Anything. Any channel.”

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

I cried for those whose lives were lost. I cried harder for the loved ones who lost them.

It was a huge thing. A devastation.

A travesty. An assault.

A violation.

In the days that followed, the attacks were all anyone talked about — even when mentioning the heroics of the many, many selfless souls who stepped into the fray to help others.

None of us knew then the long-term impact of that day’s events. First responders from New York City’s police and fire departments, and others, continued losing life and health in the aftermath of the initial casualties.

(Casualties. What a calloused, indifferent word — as if any of those killed or maimed or bereaved came to that definition by casual, effortless chance.)

Families were shattered by death, disability, and despair. Businesses and livelihoods were lost along with the lives they’d once supported.

For those of us living far away, not personally knowing victims or their families, and not having our everyday routines disrupted beyond that first day’s screeching halt, we felt for them and we cried with them and we sacrificed and contributed for them. But our everyday life, for the most part, went on.

The impact of 9/11 changed us all, some more than others. Global news coverage and the scale of the tragedy made it difficult to ignore, and visible memorials and annual commemorations ensure we will never forget.

For those whose loved ones were lost, the personal impact of 9/11 is impossible to forget. Visual reminders of their absent loved ones are everywhere they look. Annual commemorations extend beyond Patriot Day on September 11 to include every holiday, birthday, anniversary, and seasonal tradition.

A decade and a half later, mourning survivors I’ve met since have “moved forward” with their lives. I won’t diminish their losses by claiming they “resumed” life in the same manner as those of us who were not personally impacted. Life, as it was Before, ended that day. Life, as they eventually learned how to live again, evolved slowly in the After.

Of course, other people died that day, too. People all around the world. One was Karl, a sweet, elderly man in my congregation at church. His death received no national fanfare. No acclaim. His kindly widow’s loss was overshadowed by the quantity of publicized loss, but Ruth’s private grief was just as real.

At the time I felt badly for her. I admired her courage and strength as she tearfully expressed her beautiful belief that her husband was needed in heaven to help soothe and greet the many souls who’d been taken from mortality that day. I prayed for her, and I told her I was praying for her, and I sent notes once in a while.

But I was clueless. I had no idea of what her loss meant to her. How could I? That was a decade before I shared the designation of widow. A decade before new bereavement taught me the private manifestations of receiving the news that another loved one was dead.

Dismay. Shock. Denial. Distress. Panic. Fury.

In the months that followed my husband’s death, coping with that was all I could think about, even though there were many selfless souls who reached out to me in compassionate gestures. But their everyday lives went on.

Now, whenever our nation pauses for a moment of silence to honor the victims and heroes of 9/11, my understanding of what they experienced remains fractional, but I am more aware than I was. I will never be able to fully understand what any of them endured. But I do know how I felt in my own dismay-shock-denial-distress-panic-fury grieving. And my empathy for them has grown.

(Ruth, I don’t know where you live now, but please know I think of you and Karl today, as I think of the thousands of others for whom September 11 has such significance.)

I remember.

Honoring Memorial Day

Memorial Day was originally intended as a day of solemn remembrance.*[See the end of this post for a link to a short video about the day’s origins and evolution.] Once called Decoration Day (on which widows, orphans, and other war survivors decorated soldiers’ graves), its purpose was to honor and reflect on those who died while in service to their country.

Memorial Day, military, honor, remember, sacrifice, survivors

Memorial Day honors the sacrifices of those who died in service to their country. Please remember the loved ones they left behind, too. (This photo called “Memorial Day” is from

Within my extended family, the day also developed a broader meaning as descendants of my great-grandparents gathered every year to honor the memories not just of all our honored military dead but of all deceased family members. In my grandmother’s hometown, kin from all over began the day at her parents’ graves, filling the weathered cemetery — for one day each year — with as many folks above- as below-ground.

My long-widowed grandmother’s features took on a different expression there. Hindsight — now having lost all my own grandparents, mother, and husband — allows me to better understand the nostalgia, the sadness, the love, and the gratitude that shone from her lined face during this annual meeting of family from afar. It was a chance for Grandma’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews (and all their “grands,” too) to greet and get to know (by place and by story) her long-lost grandparents, parents, siblings, husband, daughter, and — in later years before her death — grandson.

The cemetery on that day was not a place of sadness — though there were tears — but of reunion (both in the here-and-now gathering and in the looked-to-someday future).  After beginning the day with respects paid on the sacred ground there and with family news updates shared by all, we relocated to the place and time I looked forward to when I was little: the park. Nearby, the entire city park (rented by the extended family for that day every year since long before my birth) was open to exploration.

When I was a child, Memorial Day meant family reunions with buffet-style picnic foods (including as many dill pickles as I could eat from a jar that was nearly as big as I was). It meant wondering why the grownups cheered and jeered (in good fun) during their annual singles versus marrieds softball game. Close cousins and distant kin walked around wearing similar noses, foreheads, and jawlines while gesturing in mannerisms either inherited or learned in a trickle down the pyramid of  Great-grandma Inez’s and Great-grandpa Edwin’s descendants.

As a widow, my appreciation of Memorial Day has shifted. I’d always been taught to acknowledge that the price of my daily freedoms was paid for by the lives of those who served my country long before me. My parents taught me reverence for our flag, not as an item to be worshiped but as a tangible representation of the blood sacrificed by those who served. War was awful because of the lives it ended; warriors — of whatever nationality — were respected for their service to their nation(s). Although my family celebrated with fun traditions on such holidays, in a very real sense Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day were holy days, too.

Now that I’ve experienced the loss of my own husband and witnessed my children’s thus-altered lives, my appreciation for the families of fallen soldiers has increased hundred-fold. I’m not a military widow, though I have been honored by friendships with many who are.  I do not know their pain, but I have greater reverence for theirs because of my own.

How can you  honor and support such families on Memorial Day? Start with acknowledging their soldiers’ service and their families’ losses. Express appreciation. Share memories. Speak up. Such days are not for politicizing the “should”s or “should-not”s of specific military campaigns or politics. They are days of succoring, support, and solidarity.

If you have other suggestions, please share them below!


*See the video clip at

Don’t Bury the Living with the Dead

One aspect of grief that blindsides many mourners is the sensation of being forgotten after the earliest phase of their loss — as if they died, too. Immediately after a death, an amazing outpouring of loving support comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. It is wonderful, but it fades away. As time passes the bereaved are still making tremendous, painful adjustments while their friends’ unchanged lives shift back into “normal.” Grieving survivors often feel as if no one cares for them anymore.

I’ve networked with thousands of widows and widowers since my husband’s death, so I’m drawing this example from my experience with this population of mourners (though the principal of post-funeral isolation applies to other losses as well). Bereaved spouses often find themselves no longer asked to join other couples they regularly socialized with before losing their partners. I’ve heard widows say they felt as if married friends didn’t trust them around their husbands anymore. (“As if I had any interest in someone else’s hubby while grieving and wanting my own!”) I’ve heard widowers say they felt as if they no longer mattered to anyone without their late wives. (“I guess the people I thought were ‘our’ friends were really just ‘hers.'”) I’ve heard widows and widowers from their 20s to their 80s say they “lost” not only their spouses but their friends, too. (“After my husband [or wife] died, it’s like I died to our friends, too.”)

Even if you’re afraid of saying “the wrong thing” to a friend who is “still” grieving, saying something — saying anything — is better than saying nothing at all. After my mother’s death I made the mistake of assuming that Dad would hurt more if I mentioned her to him than if I let him “forget” the pain of her loss. I held debates with myself on significant dates every year. I was hurting that she wasn’t with us, but what if he’d forgotten it was her birthday or their anniversary? Would my saying something about it make him remember and feel worse? It was ridiculous (and hypocritical) for me to think so, because I found such consolation in having others speak of her!

Between the bereaved and those not directly involved in that loss, a greater gulf can separate good intentions from the ability to offer meaningful, long-term consolation. Communication is better than assumption. In the weeks and months following the loss, ask the bereaved what support would most benefit them. Listen, then ask again a few weeks later, too, because they may not know themselves, and if they do the answers will often change.

It wasn’t until I began recovering from the initial shock of my husband’s death that I realized an inkling of my foolish assumption. I wanted people to remember his birthday as much as I’d wanted (and still want!) them to remember Mom’s. I didn’t feel like celebrating my wedding anniversary — our 25th was the first I faced without him — but I needed to have it acknowledged.

Whether your friend’s loss is recent or not, jot down some dates in your calendar now: the deceased’s birth and death dates, your friend’s birthday (and anniversary, if applicable). If you don’t know the dates, ask. Make reminders to acknowledge the dates when they approach. During the first year, let your friends know you’re thinking about them as “that” day of each month approaches. You don’t have to say why (unless they ask), but it will boost their spirits during tough times.


“Other” Grief (Not Triggered by Death)

For a while I’ve mentally composed this post about “other” grief triggered not by death but by different forms of loss. Not every person has experienced the death of a loved one (yet), but anyone mature enough to read these words has likely suffered their own significant losses, perhaps even grieved them.

If you’ve lost a job, you may have grieved the loss of income or the loss of stability. You may have grieved losing access to the company car (or to the “hottie” in the next cubicle). It didn’t matter that you–or your friends– “knew” you’d find another (source of funds, transportation, or “admiree”). What mattered in your moments of pain was that the situation was awful. It hurt. Long after you may have found your dream job, memories of that loss can still bring pain.

If you’ve lost your health, you may have grieved that loss. Whether illness impacted the whole sum of your parts or injury impaired the function in some of those parts, you might’ve grieved its physical (and/or emotional) pains. Even temporary conditions (a broken leg, a bout of the flu during vacation, a severe allergic reaction …) can trigger acute grief, though it soon fades. More life-altering diagnoses (an amputated limb, a loss of sight or hearing, a metabolic or mental condition, or the awful C-word — cancer …) can cause feelings of grief and despair that may take years to overcome. Life-altering means just that: life is never the same again.

These sources of grief are no less “real” than the death of a loved one. Your friend, relative, neighbor, coworker, random acquaintance or even your arch enemy who stumbles into such sources of “other” grief needs your kindness and understanding. You can apply tips from my related posts — and from sites listed on my Helpful Grief Resources page — to help you support them through whatever crises they face.

In some instances, their grief will be short-lived. They’ll find a better job or have their cast signed by a favorite celebrity. They’ll schedule another “once in a lifetime” trip in place of the one they spent puking instead of parasailing. They’ll heal. In other cases, the grief may linger long after you have “gotten over it” in their behalf; they are the ones still working their ways through the traumas. In either case, the most important grief to your grieving friends is whatever loss they are are feeling right now.

By all means, when comforting your friends, remember how you felt when you grieved your own “other” grief. You may not be a cat person, but you can remember the loss of your childhood dog to help you console the friends who mourn their cat. Draw upon the pain you once felt to help you relate to theirs. But don’t compare it aloud. Comforting them is about them and their pain, not about you and yours.

Has this reminded you of your own “other” grief? If so, please scroll down and share what it was (or is). What helped (or didn’t help) you deal with your “other” loss?

Acknowledge Birthdays and Anniversaries

After Mom died I hesitated over whether to acknowledge her birthday — or their anniversary — to Dad. I say “hesitated,” but that’s too mild a word.

I was afraid.

What if … he didn’t remember their anniversary ?
What if … he didn’t remember it was her birthday?
What if … he’d forgotten his sadness … and I reminded him?

What if I made him feel worse?

I didn’t know then, even though I missed her terribly, too, that my widower Dad missed her so much more. He was already sad — of course he was — already grieving her absence.

The week of her birthday felt awful, though my husband did his best to help me through it. Then one of Mom’s friends brought me a loaf of homemade bread. She knew it was Mom’s birthday, and she told me about a time when my mother took some to her.

Knowing someone else remembered my mother meant everything!

Even so, I still hesitated to bring up special Mom-related occasions around Dad because, again I thought, What if I make him feel sad by mentioning her?

After my husband died, I realized how ridiculous my thinking had been. Even though I’d wanted and needed acknowledgment of others’ ongoing thoughts of Mom, I’d assumed Dad could “forget” the timing of significant dates. I’d assumed that by mentioning those special occasions I’d “make” him feel more sorrow and longing for her than he already did.

As a widow it felt even more important and helpful to have people remember — and acknowledge — my husband’s birthday than my mom’s, though I still wanted that, too. Before hubby’s death, he was the one who helped me get through Mom’s birthday, the day after his.

Their birthdays fell in the fourth month after his death. Shock had begun to lift, but I was still, frankly, a mess. In that first year, one of my best friends flew 2,000 miles to spend that difficult week with me. She returned again for the week of the anniversary of his death. Her presence made a world of difference!

Another thoughtful woman gave me a card a few days before that same first “angelversary,” as some call it. (Some also call it the “sadiversary.” When my grief was still raw I called it the latter; now tempered by a few years, I think of it as the former.) In her sweet note she acknowledged awareness that it was a difficult time of year for me. Until then I’d known her only as a friendly acquaintance, but we’d not been particularly close. Her thoughtfulness marked the beginning of a now solid friendship.

Don’t be afraid to “say something” to your coworkers, friends, classmates, or relatives who’ve suffered a loss. Even if your kind acknowledgment elicits a tear or two (or an entire stream), you won’t “cause” the bereaved to feel sad — their losses did that! — but you will have demonstrated you care by showing you remember their lost loved ones.