What September 11th Taught Me About Grief
Twenty years ago, my best friend Heather went to work at Windows on the World to bake, and roll, and mix, and serve creations from her delicious heart. It was her calling. From the age of four she used to thumb through Gourmet magazine and beg her mom to help her make anything that caught her eye. If there was anyone who was born to cook and delight thousands in the process, it was Heather. We met in junior high. In high school we became best friends. We were at each other’s sides for weddings and funerals, for proms and pregnancy, for better and for worse.
I’m sure you can guess where this love story, where this story of best friends forever, is headed. Twenty years ago she walked into work and never came out again. Her horrific demise and that of 2,995 other souls was broadcast thousands of times over the years, an unprecedented international event. Decades later, friends and acquaintances visit the memorial and send me pictures of her name.
On this 20-year anniversary of losing her—of losing all of those beloved people—I’m trying to understand what her loss taught me. Trying to understand how the burning hell of grief, can actually forge a more resilient, vulnerable, and beautiful Self. Trying to see what it did to me then, what it does to me now. Trying to take stock. Here are my thoughts:
1. Grief can change you forever. Smaller griefs we can metabolize and move past. But big losses, big grief leaves a mark. I saw this for the first time when my close friend Joan’s brother died young and tragically. We were all in our 20s. Initially, usually gregarious Joan withdrew from almost all communication, something I now understand as very normal. But even after she “came back” she was different. Quieter. Like a light had gone out in her. This is not to say that in the last 30 years, Joan has never again felt joy. But I know even she would say her full light never returned after the loss of her beloved brother.
This is definitely true for me after Heather. My oldest child was a baby in September 2001. I lost nine months of Bella’s life—literally can’t remember anything. If it hadn’t been for pictures and the occasional jot I managed to make in her baby book, that time would be completely lost to my grief. Even after I got through the “deep grief” stage I felt delicate for years. A little less spark, a little more wisdom? A little more gratitude, a little less faith? I’m not sure exactly how I’m different, and it’s not necessarily bad different either. But I’m definitely not the same.
2. New griefs can trigger old griefs. My father died in April. As anyone who’s lost a parent can tell you, it’s a singular grief. I felt unmoored, untethered, and kept asking myself the question, “Who am I now?” And as I descended the rabbit hole of my dad’s loss, a familiar face was at the bottom—Heather’s. My body and heart said, “We know grief. We’ve lived loss before. Follow us.” And I did. I knew I’d be in the pit for awhile. And I knew what to do for myself, how to take care of myself in the pit in a way that would help me get out of it. I followed the breadcrumbs from Heather’s loss up and out, back into the light. I knew I would be changed forever by this loss too. But I also knew I’d survive that change. Heather showed me the way.
3. My grief processes better when I make meaning of it and/or attach growth or action to it. A few years ago, a woman I deeply admire lost both her husband and her five-year-old daughter in a tragic ocean-related accident. In the aftermath, she started a non-profit educational organization that goes into schools and teaches children about ocean safety. She’s since written about how being active in this group saved her life and sanity.
My younger daughter sent me this graphic after my dad died. Twenty years on from Heather’s loss, I see it’s clearly true. The grief and loss never left us, we just learned how to grow around it and use it for something meaningful. When Heather passed away, her parents started a culinary school scholarship fund in her name. I began to mark her birthday with my children—celebrating by eating a super decadent dessert and looking at old photos of us when we were in high school. After a few years, her extended family (including my family and that of our other best friend), began having a huge, amazing dinner together each year on the dreaded date. It gave us solace. Made us feel close to each other—and to her. It really allowed us to support each other in the particularly tough years.
4. Lastly, I think there is such thing as “good grief.” When I sent my daughter away to treatment a few years ago I felt profound grief over sending her. I felt grief about the years leading up to sending her too. It was like, how did this beautiful baby girl so full of promise and love and life get so hurt and sad that we are sending her away? I mourned the past—but I was also mourning the future. The imaginary Disney movie future I’d set up for her in my brain. The amazing grades, the fantastic college. The brilliance, the triumphs, the boundless happiness and success. That future was a fiction, though. And when I look back, I see how that grief over something that did not exist was really trying to tell me something.
This grief over a future—and a daughter—that did not exist was showing me that I had become VERY attached to my own version of my kid, not to who she actually was. And that maybe my imposing that vision on her all these years may not have had an optimal effect on her. This outsized grief was telling me something insanely valuable. It was showing me my role in my daughter’s current situation and it was telling me that I pretty clearly needed to look into my own Self to see how my issues had affected my parenting and my kiddo. While it sure hurt, I can only see it now as good, useful grief.
So that is where I am, 20 years on. Heather’s loss has taught me some very profound lessons. It has also taken a little piece of my heart. My mic drop move here is to finish with this piece by Kahlil Gibran; truly the last word on sorrow—and joy:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.