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.

Grief Can’t Tell Time, but It Obsesses over Calendars (Part 1)

Grief can’t tell time, but it obsesses — I repeat — obsesses over calendars. It highlights dates better than a Fortune 500 CEO’s social secretary. Grief tracks anniversaries better than hungry jungle cats on a grey-muzzled gazelle tending a newborn.

I thought I was going crazy. Without hesitation I answered anyone who asked me how long it had been. I told them exactly how long since my husband died.

My answers unnerved people, but I wasn’t sure which aspect disturbed them.  Was it because I already knew the answer (perhaps I’d channeled my inner-psychic to anticipate and answer their question)? Or was it because my too precise answer was detailed to the point of confusion?

I couldn’t answer a simple, “It’s been four months,” and leave it at that.  No, I had to say, “It’s been 4 months and 2 days (if you go by the date) but it’s been 4 months and 5 days (if you go by which week of the month and day of the week it is). If you’re counting a month as 4 weeks , then it’s been 4 1/4 months, plus another 5 days, but it might be easier to call it 4 months and 12 days.”

(By this point the kind soul who’d bravely addressed the calendar-crazed widow probably remembered the snarky adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mistaking my pause for an end while searching for escape , my poorly rewarded friend would back away slowly, probably recalling Boy and Girl Scout merit badges earned for escape from rabid creatures. Avoid eye contact. Don’t make sudden moves. If bitten, seek immediate medical attention!)

Alas for my friend, I’d paused only to catch my breath. “It’s really been more than 4 months, because that night of the 3rd week of the month was earlier this week and because the date of the week was a couple of days ago. It’s actually been 17 weeks and 5 days. But it’s  been 124 days, so that makes it more like 4 months and 4 days, counting 30 days per month.”

As much as I needed and appreciated hearing the question, the same person seldom asked “How long has it been?” twice. (Can’t imagine why …)

From this side of a little over 3 years later (Aren’t you relieved I left it vague this time?), it sounds a little nutty.  Okay, I admit it sounds nuttier than a jumbo bag of mixed varieties, most with slightly cracked shells.

It was obsessive, yes, but here’s the part you need to understand for the sake of your grieving friend:

My compulsive calendar counting  was as normal as  it was essential.

It wasn’t until I connected with a network of thousands of young widows and widowers that I realized it wasn’t morbid for me to know — and yet be confused by — the exact number of days, weeks, and months that had passed. I wasn’t alone in my obsession over “how long” it had been! I. Wasn’t. Alone.

It took time — more than 17 months (or more than 68 weeks, or  476 days …) — before I understood why this was so important and automatic for me (and perhaps for the others).

Think of traveling before September 11, 2001. Now think of the trauma of that day (or any other “big” date that impacted your life). Think of traveling immediately after that day as compared to today.

Everything changed.

The loss of my husband did that. It destroyed my internal packing and security checklists. It rummaged through my heart’s luggage and tossed it onto the Tarmac. It permanently rewrote my itinerary.  Everything shifted into the Departure column. Grief reset my life schedule.

No wonder my brain couldn’t let it go.