Can I move past being a 9/11 widow?

As the 10-year anniversary nears, I'm finding going on to the next phase of my life is harder than I'd imagined

By Nikki Stern

Published August 2, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

I'd been imagining the 10th anniversary as a cleaver that, like the event itself, would sunder my life into before and after. Ten years after the attack that took my husband and left me an involuntary member of a group of grieving relatives, I would quit 9/11.

In 2005, I began to pull away from the roles that had given me purpose after my husband was killed. Activism is healing, especially when your life has been literally split in two (we were two; now I'm one). I felt I might be making a difference, and I found comfort in people who seemed to understand both my deep pain and my desire to work.

I was spent, though: tired of attempting to express opinions on behalf of others; tired of steering clear of opinions I wanted to express; sick of being treated differently, as if I were a victim or a moral beacon or, God forbid, an opportunist; sick of being seen as a symbol of resilience; a receptacle for a nation's fear, anger, resentment and confusion; someone forever defined by one unexpected, violent and all too public event. I didn't want to represent 9/11 families; I didn't want to be known as a 9/11 widow.

I stayed professionally connected, advising and consulting on various projects, writing a few Op-Eds and a book based on my experiences, but the goal was to make a larger point about the danger of moral authority in America. And I found I didn't have anything to say to the reporters who still called me for quotes to find out what "we families" might think about every 9/11-related event imaginable.

Last May, Osama bin Laden's death prompted a new round of calls and requests for interviews. Along with a group of other family members, I met with the president of the United States at ground zero. Talking to Barack Obama was thrilling. But that day -- the crowds and the checkpoints, the heightened security and the helicopters, the microphones and megaphones and construction cranes hanging over a still-incomplete building where my husband worked and died, even the identification badges bearing my name along with the words "family member" -- dumped me back to 2001: a jumble of sights and sounds, exhaustion and exhilaration, highs and lows made up of fear, pride, confusion and the sense of being different or "special" on account of a loss so severe we hadn't even had time to process it. I came home and cried like I hadn't for years.

Maybe that was a turning point or maybe, this time around, there is no precise before and after. 9/11's hold on me is more complicated than I anticipated; I must respect my memory's tenacity. So I've developed a plan: I'm staying away from commemorations. I won't be heading into lower Manhattan, not even (for now) to the memorial to try to locate my late husband's name on the lists of the dead. No Op-Eds about 9/11 and how it changed America (did it?) or interviews about what I plan to do or what this milestone means to me. Have I quit 9/11? Perhaps, perhaps not. But I know this: For the first time in years, I'm looking forward to autumn.

Nikki Stern is the editor in chief of Does This Make Sense and the author of "Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority."

Nikki Stern

Nikki Stern regularly blogs on Open Salon. She is the author of "Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority."

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9/11 Life Stories