Gratitude and Grief: A Survivor’s 9/11 Remembrance
Every year, I struggle with how to commemorate the upcoming 9/11 anniversary. This year, the 15th anniversary, is no different.
It sneaks up on me every year. Without fail, I’m unprepared for the inevitable tenderness, the reopening of old wounds. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.
I survived the attacks on the World Trade Center. I was at work bright and early on 9/11/01, in the south tower, on the 44th floor. I was at my desk when the first plane hit, and in a stairwell when the second one did. Incredibly, I was a few blocks away by the time my building disintegrated and collapsed before my eyes. There’s a lot more — but this is not that post.
There are a few reasons why I struggle with deciding what to do to mark the anniversary. Each year, I ask myself: do I take the day off of work, or go about my day as usual? Go to memorial ceremonies or stay home? Talk about it? Don’t talk about it? There doesn’t seem to be a “right” way to do things — no playbook for an evacuee.
Until the last 5 years or so, I didn’t even want anyone to know I was a survivor — I was afraid of being stigmatized, and didn’t want 9/11 to color people’s opinion of me, personally or professionally. I was also painfully self-conscious about having survived injury-free, and carried the enormous weight of survivor’s remorse. But of course, people knew — and they asked about it.
In the weeks and months that followed 9/11/01, to avoid talking about it in detail, when asked, I would simplify my story to shut down conversation, saying:
It was a scary day.
I was really fortunate.
I walked down the stairs and got out in time.
The more I told my simplified, 3-sentence story, the more I believed it was that simple, and the less I felt I deserved to grieve alongside those who had lost loved ones. I would get angry at myself, those first few anniversaries, when I would experience physical flashbacks — weakness in my limbs, a lump of sorrow and fear in my throat. If my escape was so simple, so seamless (which it of course was not), what right did I have to feel the fear and devastation all over again each year?
I do realize that my feelings of undeserving and guilt were a normal byproduct of trauma — and that ultimately, those of us who experienced and remember 9/11 are all part of the same puzzle, regardless of the degree of closeness to the event. Everyone “deserves” to mourn and grieve that awful day in our country’s history. And even though I still carry grief and guilt, I have allowed myself to feel true gratitude for having survived.
With the passing of time, it has gotten a lot easier. I’m less afraid for people to know, and less inclined to minimize what I went through — but it’s still uncomfortable, and I find myself apologizing for the heaviness of the topic when it comes up. I’m thankful that my story is both remarkable and unremarkable — unremarkable because I escaped without injury, and have not had to make significant changes in my life’s course because of what happened. But remarkable because it happened, and because I was there — and because I survived when so many did not.
As I think about marking the 15th anniversary, I think about my own post-9/11 life. I was lucky to be able to move forward, live my life, pursue my dreams — a stronger person for having been through it. I have a loving partner for a husband, and 3 awesome sons. I am successful in a career that I love. And even though I don’t do it full time — people pay me to sing every now and again. One day, when I tell my sons that I was there, I will tell them I was brave, and that the life we have together is proof positive that the bad guys didn’t win.
So, I’m still not sure what I’ll do to commemorate this upcoming anniversary. I’ll probably go for a run, hug my kids, have dinner with my husband, check out the amazing Tribute in Lights, hopefully see some of my friends. And one day, when asked, I might be able to tell my full story in more than 3 sentences. But probably not just yet.