What 9/11 teaches us about grief

This morning, like many Americans, I watched as the names of those who were killed on September 11, 2001 were read on the morning news. Last year I refused to watch the ceremony, frustrated that we were expected to grieve in the same way, year after year.

“Our grief evolves… shouldn’t our ceremonies evolve too?” I vented to my friend Ester Bloom, who had lost her father to pancreatic cancer, as I had lost my mother.

This year I decided to watch the 9/11 ceremony, partially as research. In the memoir I’m writing, I–coincidentally–just wrote the chapter that takes place on September 11, 2001. At the time, I was a college student at Syracuse University, naive to the world of politics and terrorism, but already entrenched in the world of loss, knowing my mom was battling a terminal illness that only a pure miracle would cure, a disease that would kill her nearly a year later. I wanted to see the ceremony to jog my memory from that time.

Instead, I found myself tearing up as the names were read. It was the readers themselves who shook me. Young children who appeared to be around 5 or 7 years old read the names of strangers in poised, careful voices, then told of the loved one who they never met–a grandpa, an uncle. One man spoke about his father-in-law, a man he only knew through stories and memories. That could be Mark, I thought, my husband who never got to meet Sally.

The ceremony had evolved, I realized. It’s now told through the eyes of a new generation–the children and people who enter our lives, bringing new life to comfort our loss.

The original mourners–those who lost spouses, siblings, and parents–noted that although it’s been 12 years, they remember that person every day. Last year I wasn’t ready to see their ongoing grief. I’d gotten married ten days earlier, and after counting the years I’d spent grieving, I decided enough was enough. I deserved to finally be happy. But this year I realized that the voices of the bereaved are important. They teach us that grief has no deadline, that although the loss is less painful, the missing and the memories stay. And in that way we never forget–because it’s our life’s great honor to remember them.