September 11th – 16 Years of Grief

911 Memorial

Sixteen years ago, our resilience as a country was tested when nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks.  We have come a long way since then, and I have watched as NYC has rebuilt, and bereaved families have once again found hope.

I was honored to spend ten years with 9/11 firefighter families, taking the grief journey with them.  Their grief came in waves, often knocking them down when they least expected it.  But these families kept going, and they leaned on, and supported other 9/11 families, much as TAPS families do.  It’s been 16 years, since that horrific day, and these families have faced many milestones such as graduations, marriages, and births.  Many of these events have been bitter/sweet as their loved ones were not there to share in their joy.    But the firefighters who died will never be forgotten, and their memories are kept alive by family members, who always remember them, pay tribute to them, and continue to make them proud by living their best life.

For many of the TAPS families, Sept. 11th took on a personal significance, some had family serving in the military at the time.  While others had family members who joined the military, in reaction to the 9/11 attacks.  It will come as no surprise to TAPS families that the Sept. 11th firefighter families I worked with often reminded me that although this was a very public loss for the rest of the world, it was a very private loss for them. As one bereaved sibling told me, “the world lost a hero, but I lost my brother.”  The reality is that these families have not forgotten or had closure, but rather they have remembered, and incorporated the deceased firefighters into their lives in new ways. As those of us who have had a loss know, “closure is for business accounts, not love accounts.”

Most of us remember where we were 16 years ago, when we heard the disturbing news that the World Trade Center and Pentagon had been attacked. On that Tuesday, Sept. 11th 2001, I was a student at the University of San Francisco, working diligently on my doctoral dissertation, which looked at the impact of the sudden death of a sibling on surviving siblings.

These 9/11 stories were gut-wrenching, and my heart went out to the families, as I mourned alongside the entire country. While I had no idea what it was like to lose a family member in the Sept. 11th attacks, I did know what it was like to suddenly lose my 17 year-old brother and cousin together, in a car accident.  Because of my personal and professional experience in traumatic loss, I was determined to find a way to be of service.  It was this sense that many of us felt at that time, that we had to do something to help the city, the country, and those who were grieving. 

Several months after 9/11, I relocated to NYC to work with the FDNY/Columbia University Family Guidance Program. This research study looked at traumatic loss over time in families who had lost a firefighter in the World Trade Center.  At that time, I had no idea that I would be working with many of these families for 10 years and that I would still be in touch with some of them today. The individuals I worked with changed my life in profound ways, and taught me a lot about the resiliency of the human spirit.  All of us who have had a loss know that love never dies, and that although we are poorer for having lost them, we are so much richer for ever having known them.

I am honored to have worked with these firefighter families, and to have been able to take their journey with them, out of the darkness and back into the light.

Heidi Horsley

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