Public v. Private Tragedies

I posted this on my blog’s FB page, but since I only have 17 friends on there, and I know more people must read my blog, I’m reposting with more details to the blog. I always struggle a little bit with the anniversary of 9-11 because it happened in the same year–just five months after–that my husband died. Having dealt with my own grieving issues throughout the years, and having been brushed off a number of times by would-be listeners, I can’t help but feel a little jealousy when I see “Never Forget” banners on people’s FB profile pictures, memorial statuses on FB, and I hear radio programs discussing various feelings about that day. It strikes me most because while people seem to think nine years is a long time for me to be missing Mike, they seem to have no problem with the length of nine years when discussing the grieving of a nation caught off guard by a terrorist attack. Now, I don’t mean to suggest in any way that losing my husband was as tragic as the loss of lives or the fact that America was attacked by terrorists; however, my loss was felt very strongly by me personally and, in a way, it hurt me more than 9-11 ever could.

I guess I just think that people need to consider some of the ways in which they deal with people in their own lives. If you’re still affected–as you should be–by what happened on 9-11-01, then why is it so strange to find me–a young widow–still affected by her own loss of 4-14-01? I bet you still remember every second of what happened to you on 9-11-01–where you were when you found out and what you thought, how you dealt with the rest of your day. I still remember every second of 4-14-01 as well. I remember waking up a few times throughout the early morning hours of 4-14-01, getting up to go to the bathroom, Mike waking up as I slipped back into bed. I remember around 7am, the last time I got up to use the bathroom, that Mike grumbled about the early morning sunlight–“Gets too damned bright too early,” he muttered  as the sunlight through the blinds fell into his half-opened eyes. I remember our moments of intimacy, our rings clinking together, our last words. I remember Mike crumbling down next to me, the color of blue that washed over his body making him look very alien, the frantic call to 911.

I remember the long drive in the ambulance to the hospital, the twenty questions the skeptical EMTs threw at me trying to suggest Mike took drugs, the mishap at the hospital intake where one of the nurses mistook me for the parent of a kid who’d come in, how she misinformed me that “he” was okay, only to find out that “he” was not my husband.

I remember the cold, austere room I was ushered into without explanation. It was decorated in bleak yellow tones–like the popular color of the 1970s–and the couches were worn and uncomfortable. I remember the social worker and the chaplain. I remember the doctor who came in and told me my husband was dead. I remember pain, confusion, a weird brightness that fell over my eyes and took over everything. I remember shouting angrily at Mike’s cold, dead body in the silent room into which they’d put him when they could do no more. I remember my heart breaking, the dimensions of my future shifting, my stomach convulsing every time I smelled food.

I remember attempted phone calls to Mike’s mom, but I had the wrong number so I kept getting some lady in an apartment his mom used to live in. I remember calling his father. My son is dead, cried Ed in my ear. A mournful noise a daughter-in-law should never have to hear from her spouse’s parent. It echoes in my nightmares still.

I remember the long drive home in the passenger seat of my dad’s car as I wordlessly tried to piece together what had just happened. He was just here, I kept thinking. And now he not. How does that happen? I remember wanting a “do-over” for the day. If I could do it over, I’d change one thing and that would fix everything. The butterfly effect.

I remember people sitting in my living room–Mom, Jonathon, Wendi, Dad.  I remember people trying to get me to eat the sandwiches they brought from Subway, but I dry-heaved as soon as the smell of the sandwiches filled up the living room. I remember Jonathon placing phone calls to all our friends, family, associates. I couldn’t do it. I hid upstairs.

I remember waking up the next morning and crying because it wasn’t a dream. It was real. Mike’s side of the bed was a cold, empty space where a tiny spot of blood from the IV the EMTs inserted lingered on the sheets. I remember Mike’s cat, Tanya, sitting in his place, looking lost, seeming to understand that her master was never coming back, mourning with the rest of us.

I remember 9-11-01 too because I relived the nightmare of Mike’s death in the eyes of imagined men and women who were now also, like me, experiencing crushing lost. I wondered where Mike might have been if he’d been alive. Would he have been on any of those planes, or merely trapped in another state over night because no more flights were leaving? I imagined what it must have been like to be on United 93. What if Mike had been on United 93? Would I have received some cryptic phone call from his cell phone before the plane went down?

I know I personalize 9-11 quite a bit and I do feel bad for it. It’s not really my day to remember my own pain, but one to reflect on the fragility of our existence in a world filled with potential dangers both foreign and domestic.  I don’t think I would have really empathized with the families of the victims of 9-11, though, had I not experienced my own loss prior. Because of my experience, I saw 9-11 in maybe a different way than other people did. Yes, it was an attack on our country and it represents a larger struggle with a small but fanatical group of people in another part of the world. However, to me, 9-11 is about unexpected loss. And that’s all I can see in it. Whenever I remember this day, I remember loneliness–absolute and frightening. I remember grief and my feeling of disconnect with the rest of the world–which I’d been feeling since Mike’s funeral–just got wider. That day to me, always, represents the lowest point in my widowhood. I was never more alone in my entire life as I was on that day. The one person’s arms who could have saved me in that moment was the one person who was the reason I felt so alone.

So when people get on their patriotic high horses for 9-11, I can’t help but feel a little miffed. What makes it okay to remember a public tragedy after nine years, but not a private one after the same amount of time? Why is my remembrance seen as dysfunctional while the remembrance of a public tragedy seen as patriotic? And why are public displays of the stages of grief (ie, the anger I see in so many of my fellow Americans) acceptable while my own occasional dealings with a stage of grief been viewed as inappropriate?

Personally, from what I’ve seen over the last few weeks, particularly with the ongoing debates over constructing a mosque at the WTC site and the Qur’an burning demonstration by that little aberrant Christian group, I’m starting to think that most Americans are still in the anger stage of grief. I experienced the anger phase in 2005. I picked up cycling heavy–even buying my first road bike–and have since left that stage behind. You may not have guessed it, but I’ve been in acceptance stage for over two years now. It’s from the acceptance stage that I’m finally able to start writing about my life with Mike as I’ve wanted to for years. I don’t think I could have done it any other stage… well, I could have, but I don’t think I would have done it any justice.

Do I still experience depression about the loss from time to time? Sure. Do I still miss him? Yes. Is it dysfunctional? I don’t think so. People we’ve loved and lost all become a part of our personal consciousness; we can’t erase all memory of these people nor should we be expected to pretend they never existed. That’s why I always bring up Mike when a thought about him occurs to me and I no longer care at all if it brings discomfort to those around me. A person’s discomfort when I bring up a memory is a reflection of that person’s dysfunctional response to death, not my supposed inability to let go of Mike. I let go of Mike a long time ago–I know he’s not coming back. But I did not–and will not–let go of his memory because I don’t have to. No one would expect me to let go of the wonderful memories of my grandparents.

I think that American society in general has not yet reached the acceptance stage of grief after all this time. We (yeah, maybe even me sometimes) are still looking to the heavens and bemoaning, “Why us?” We want to find the person who caused the pain and cause them double pain, even if we take out collateral damage and marginalize a whole group of people based on their association with the radical group that brought about 9-11-01. A spare few seem to not even realize that putting the blame squarely on one group of people is just as ridiculous as if I blamed all emergency room doctors for Mike’s death (since the doctors who he came to about his chest problems before he died never found the actual issue that would have saved his life).

Anger is a bad stage to live in. When I was in it, it ate me alive. I was smoking cigarettes regularly, drinking far too much alcohol, and pushing away all the people in my life who cared about me by telling them they didn’t understand me. I had this very teenager attitude of “it’s me against the world.” Or, even, it’s me against the Universe (or God, the Divine, etc). I see this same attitude in many of my fellow Americans and it’s sad. We need to collectively move beyond this anger stage and reach an acceptance of what happened. It’s only from the acceptance phase can any of us truly heal. We can work together to make a better world by using our love instead of our anger to lead us.

So even though the world doesn’t see it in my actions, I’m actually in a better place with my own grief than many Americans are in their own grief over 9-11. I guess I can feel comforted knowing that. I just wish there wasn’t such a huge gap in what is considered socially acceptable for expressing one’s feelings between a public versus a private tragedy. Maybe we can become better human beings by accepting the fact that death is a part of life and, like it or not, you have to deal with it. So when a young widow mentions her loved one when you’re having a good time at a party, remember that just like the events of 9-11, her loss is also never forgotten. And it’s okay for her to never forget.

2 thoughts on “Public v. Private Tragedies

  1. Yes, and a personal loss affects the individual in so many different ways…the connections from individual to individual are much more complex and numbered.

    I guess, though, that the multitude of personal losses that occurred on one day have probably affected each individual who lost someone in 9-11 as your loss of Mike has you.

    Then, there is the non-personal loss of all of us who do not know any person that died on that day, of the feeling that we are safe at work and play…that affects us all when acts of terrorism are successful.

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