At this time of year, I often feel out of step with the rest of the country, at least as portrayed by the media and demonstrated by election results. This year is different.
Like just about everyone else I know who’s old enough to remember the events of 9/11, I have a vivid memory of how I learned about them. I was driving my younger daughter to high school and we were listening to the news on the car radio. We heard the announcer cry, “The second Tower is down!” and the rest of the story tumbled out. The way the events unfolded reminded me poignantly of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was in high school in 1963, just about the same age my daughter was on September 11. Listening to the news broadcast with her, I experienced a parallel of my own youthful experience. Once again, the world became to be a dangerous and unpredictable place, but for me it was not the first time. I too responded with a feeling that the world has changed forever, but I also had the memory of having walked through this before — and not just the Presidential assassination.
For me, Septembers will never be solely about 9/11. Twenty-five years ago this month, my mother was raped and beaten to death by a neighbor kid on drugs. It was a spectacularly brutal, banner headline crime, but only part of a larger tragedy, for his own family had suffered the murder of his older brother by a serial killer some years before. My body knows when the anniversary is approaching, even when my thoughts are distracted. The shift in the quality of the light at summer’s end reaches deep into my nervous system. The scar tissue on my heart aches. The ghosts of things that once held the power to drive me crazy stir in the darkness. My sleep becomes fragile, even though I no longer have nightmares. It’s a hard time, an intensely personal time.
One thing I have learned over the years is that grief isn’t fungible; you can’t compare or exchange one person’s experience with another’s or say, This one’s pain is two-thirds the intensity of that one’s. Grief is grief; loss is loss. There’s no benefit to anyone in comparisons. And no one else can do the hard emotional work of healing for us.
Around me and in the media, I see public displays of remembrance and more often than not, I feel reluctant to share mine. For one thing, I’ve lived with my story for over two decades and I’ve had extensive trauma therapy, but the person I tell it to is hearing it for the first time. “My god,” they say, “how did you live through that?” At most times of the year, it’s a gift to be able to sit with them, give them time to catch up, and to share a little of what I’ve learned about healing. But not this season. I need to have a time just for my own grief, a time that is just for my mother.
If someone says they lost a loved one in 9/11, or they had to pass the rubble every day on the way to work, or they were involved in some other way, they have no need to recite the circumstances. Because those events are known to the greater community, there is a sense of shared experience or at least an appreciation of the horror and grief of those directly affected. Individual losses occur in much smaller communities. I have come to believe that none of us can truly understand what another’s loss is like. We are all individuals with our own histories, our own resources, our own lurking insanity. But we can say, “Even though I don’t know what you’re going through, my heart goes out to you.” In my own life, I have found this deeply supportive.
I don’t want to minimize or take away from the feelings of anyone affected by 9/11. We should be allies, for surely there is enough compassion, enough tears, enough fury, enough mending of hearts, to go around. Sorrows shared are divided, or so it is said. Until now, I have not found a way to both acknowledge the collective grief around me and to maintain the separate integrity of my own. What we share, in many variations, is the darkness and the long slow journey to the light. We share the craving for justice, the moments of irrational fury, the struggle against a world that seems capricious in its viciousness. We share the desperation to hold someone accountable, to inflict blame, to punish that person to the utmost in the hope that somehow it will make us stop hurting. That desire to lash out and make the perpetrator suffer is a universal human impulse, but I believe it is only one part of the initial reaction to a horrific tragedy. It is something we must pass through on our way back to wholeness. Anger and adrenalin, with their energizing power, help us to get through the early stages. However, both are anesthetizing, numbing to both emotion and spirit. If we remain there, frozen, we cannot wrestle with the deeper issues of healing from trauma.
What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it’s okay for my mother’s killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.
My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked — incarcerated — in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It’s like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.
I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice — to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.
I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, “I want my father back!” (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that’s impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.
My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or “achieve closure,” and instead focus on taking care of my insides — my heart, my spirit, my body — the better I fare.
So I’ve been talking about my own healing process and what I’ve learned. I’ve been meeting with other family members and with people who’ve been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I’ve been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.
Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.
I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, and short story “The Casket of Brass” are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.