Snapshots of Grief: 9/11/2001

Wednesday is usually a post about Energizers, things that give us the energy to accomplish what needs to be done. I can’t do that today. Today, we must acknowledge grief.

Even though I saw a lot of posts yesterday about today being the 18th anniversary of 9/11 and even though I knew that day had a dramatic impact on me, it didn’t sink in until this morning that that was part of what was making me edgy. I struggled to fall asleep last night; every little sound or unusual movement startled me in a way I haven’t experienced in almost a year. That in itself was unsettling, but not understanding why was troubling. I realized this morning when I looked at the first post on my Facebook feed what was going on: It may have been 18 years ago and I may not have been in NYC, but the images of that day are burned into my mind and generated a fear that is recalled to mind every September 11th.

My life changed that day. I can point to specifics, but I’m honestly not here to talk about the individual impacts of 9/11. I think it’s important we consider the national changes that took place, the changes that kids today live with as if they are normal. The changes that we should grieve because they represent a loss the entire country experienced.

If you flew before 9/11 and have flown since, you know firsthand some of the changes. Beforehand, flying was a fairly carefree experience. You could sit with your family while you waited for your flight in the terminal and they could wave at you from the windows while you waited for take off. If you wanted, you could just go down to the airport and watch planes all day long. We lost that carefree spirit because of the lives taken from us that day. We weren’t being irresponsible before; we just had no reason to be afraid. Times have changed. As a whole, we have become more security conscious and we pass that along to our children who have no idea that things used to be different. If they do know it intellectually, they still don’t understand the full impact. We never used to think as we sent our loved ones off to the airport: “I hope there are no terrorists on this plane.” Our fears about flying were simply that some equipment might malfunction and the plane would crash; a legitimate fear, but one most of us didn’t give too much thought.

We didn’t used to think about safety at a major sporting event the way we do now. Going to a football game didn’t mean you had to figure out how to fit everything you needed into your pockets. You could bring seat backs. I don’t know why such changes made a big impression on me; I just remember the first college football game I went to after 9/11. It was several years later and I actually thought about not going because it was a big game; it would be a lot of people. Someone who wanted to cause panic and confusion could certainly have used that venue to do so. That hadn’t ever been a thought before that moment.

The skies for what felt like ages after 9/11 were devoid of planes and contrails. It was eerie. You don’t realize how much you are used to something until it is gone, and that is perhaps one of the most important aspects of grief. Grief allows us to catch a glimpse of just how important certain things and people are to us. We may not have each lost a friend, brother, husband, aunt, sister, that day; but we did lose something precious as a nation.

We didn’t realize how good we had it, how blessed we were to be able to live a fairly carefree life. In an instant, that was gone. At first we grieved it in unity, but slowly, we have drifted apart again. We are a country that values our individuality; that’s not necessarily bad, but the losses we experienced as a nation should not be grieved just as individuals.

I was surprised yesterday and this morning as I found myself wanting desperately to relate where I was, what I was doing, how I felt that day 18 years ago. But the reality of grief is that we want to share it, especially when it is so big. I still can’t wrap my head around it; I don’t know anyone who can. We tell each other the story not just to remember, which is important, but also to grieve. We need to know that someone understands; the tragedy of 9/11 united us in a unique way, partially because we knew everyone around us understood. It wasn’t like personal loss where you end up grieving in isolation because no one else experienced that particular loss. We didn’t have to ask: “Did you see that thus and such happened?” Every news outlet was covering every moment. We didn’t have to recount the details of the story so someone else could catch a glimpse of what we were talking about; we could dig right into the heart of the fear and the pain. And we did.

We still need to do that. But we need to not just talk about the tragedy of lives lost and the scars left upon the nation. We need to talk about the positive things that did happen. We need to recount the stories of heroes, the moments of amazing unity that overlooked race and class and religion. We can mourn; we can cry. There is nothing wrong with that, but for our children to understand what we learned that day, we must honor the fallen by also speaking well of the good things. And that is true of all grief.

Whether the loss is a national loss as with 9/11 or a personal loss as with a grandparent succumbing to cancer, we cannot truly honor the memory of those who are no longer with us if we only think about the fact that they are gone. We tell our children the things we loved and miss about our grandparents and they learn from that lessons of what they should be. We should tell them also of what we loved and miss about our country before 9/11, the things we learned from losing those things, and guid them through those memories to be more thoughtful citizens.

The lives lost on 9/11 were not wasted lives. They ended in devastating ways, ripped from their families in ways that still make us cringe. But they were not wasted. God wastes nothing. Those who died can still teach us to make our days count. We never know when our lives will end, so let us embrace each moment, speak love to our families, and never forget those who have gone before us.