A 9/11 widow's advice to the most recent victims of terrorism and violence

As an individual victim of a national tragedy, it took me years to overcome my own grief. Here's what I learned

Published December 7, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

  (AP/Laurent Cipriani)
(AP/Laurent Cipriani)

It's been 14 years and three months since my husband, Eddie Torres, died in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. It was his second day of work at Cantor Fitzgerald and at the time, I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant. I lived on West 22nd Street in New York City and as I walked down 8th Avenue towards the burning towers — while everyone else walked away from them— I saw the towers fall and I saw people look bewildered and frightened in those few moments after it happened. Everyone was silent, until just one woman started crying hysterically in the street. It was this woman's behavior, the sound of her sobs and screams more than anything else, that convinced me this was really happening, that lifted the sense that I’d stumbled into a surreal nightmare. Her reaction should have been mine. I should have been the one screaming, but because I felt so vulnerable and alone in that crowd, headed in the wrong direction, I felt compelled to keep my emotions under control. Having lived through this, I consider myself a self-taught authority on trauma and complicated grief, specifically, what it's like to be a victim of terrorism and mass violence.

Complicated grief is a psychological term that describes a disorder of lingering grief, often the result of a sudden, violent, traumatic loss. As a victim of terror, I think I've suffered an extra complicated grief because of the extremely public nature of the event itself and the impact it's had locally, nationally and internationally. The 9/11 attacks happened to me, but to a much lesser degree, they happened to everyone. Though most people didn’t lose a loved one in the attack, the images and video footage of that day penetrated our individual and national psyche. And although the attacks remained a symbol for Americans for years and remain one even to this day, just a few months after the attacks I experienced a strong social pressure to "move on already.” As the nation grieved and tried to make sense of what had happened, people seemed uncomfortable with my struggle to do so as an individual, a widow and a mother. Individual grieving, it turned out, was more complicated and arduous than the pat process of “coming to terms” with the tragedy as a nation.

As these were my circumstances, I muddled through my extra complicated grief disorder with resilience. I did specific things by instinct that served to protect my family for the long term and help us accept our loss, not as Americans or as generic victims but as living, breathing human beings. This month, as our screens are once again taken over by images of terrorism, violence and mass-slaughter, it occurred to me that perhaps the lessons I learned as I navigated my loss could be helpful to those individuals now suffering their own. These are the things I would now like to share with anyone dealing with a violent traumatic loss of a loved one, but especially with those who are now raw with grief from the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali, Colorado and California.

1. I protected my family from the media.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I saw images of the towers burning everywhere, every day. We all did. But for me, these images were not just upsetting but physically painful. They pulled me back to that first moment when I heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center and I just knew that Eddie was dead.

I looked forward to the time when the news cycle would end and the images would fade from view, but the images always seemed to come back with every piece of news considered  “9/11-related."  And so I made a decision. I determined that I would be vigilant about keeping the news out of my house and away from my son, especially around the yearly anniversaries of the tragedy.

But even more damaging than seeing these images in the news was being the news. The press constantly sought out the victims' loved ones, asking how we felt, a question that only pours salt on the wound and seems to inspire the most banal of answers. How did I feel that my husband was murdered in a terrorist attack? How do I feel that other people continue to suffer in the same way, that nothing seems to have changed? To this day, I have no idea how to answer this question, how to say anything that would do justice to my feelings. And I know I'm not alone. Once, I heard a BBC reporter ask a girl who survived the 2004 Chechen attacks on her school in Beslan, Russia, ”So how did it feel when you were running and being shot at and you knew your mother was dead?" To move forward, I had to learn to protect myself from these kinds of questions and from other media intrusions as well.

In October 2001, I learned from my Beth Israel Hospital Lamaze teacher that reporters had contacted her looking for pregnant 9/11 widows. With a bounty on my belly, I hid until my baby was born but was enticed one month later to participate in a filmed gathering of 9/11 widows and their newborns. I hoped to connect with the other moms and find one of them who could be my 9/11 widow/new mom best friend. I was desperate at that time to find someone to truly share and commiserate with about this new normal. The 30 minute segment aired on ABC around Christmas. Two pictures were taken of us during the event, one of the mothers and one of our babies swathed in white angel gauze, printed in U.S. News. During the taping I avoided the cameras as best I could, especially ducking the one-on-one interview. Meanwhile, my son opted out by sleeping through the whole thing. In the end, I left feeling drained of my soul, as though something sacred had been taken from me. I vowed then that this would never happen again, and that if I ever engaged with the press, I would do so on my own terms, telling my own story in a way that was respectful of my individual grief and my husband’s memory.

2. I created my own memorials.

Every day I scribbled stream-of-conscious writing in notebooks. From September 12, 2001, this was where I incoherently put all my sorrows and misadventures. What had formerly been my "Morning Pages" from Julia Cameron's famous "The Artist's Way," a practice I'd been doing regularly since January, 2001, I now transformed to my "Mourning Pages."  Instead of Julia's disciplined three pages every a.m., I wrote endlessly whenever my feelings felt unmanageable, which was all the time.

I wrote coherently too, about Eddie, documenting everything he ever told me about himself growing up in Colombia, entering the U.S., the awful jobs he had as an illegal immigrant and the luck and skill he had in landing his job as a currency broker. I indulged in reading about our passionate three year relationship in journals I'd written throughout that time and amended them to include all the additional details those pages loosened from deep inside me.

In turn, I started writing formally about my grief and suffering.  It was my way to respond to the mean and superficial stories the press was now churning out about us towards the end of 2001, specifically with regard to the Federal 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. When family members fought for the fair deal the government promised us in lieu of litigation, in a short clause within the "Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act" (September 22, 2001), these actions were perceived as greedy, ungrateful and undeserving.

From January through June of 2002, I wrote numerous first person pieces about what it was like to be me, a regular person, suddenly caught up in a personal loss of international proportions. Over the years I have written many more essays, a graphic novel memoir and other creative writings about Eddie and my experiences after his death.

No matter how raw or crafted, all of my writings projects have exorcised pain and given me a practice for managing grief. The grief still exists, nothing can eradicate it, but through writing, I move it outside of myself. I make it a thing I can control and feel proud of as a memorial to Eddie and to my own abilities to survive and thrive.

3. I know my PTSD triggers and I surrender to them rather than fight them. 

Whenever there is a catastrophic event and the Red Cross rolls out its fundraising machinery, I start feeling sick and upset, remembering how the Red Cross treated me after my husband died. For months there was red tape to untangle for the family gift that was never forthcoming. I'm afraid of what new victims may receive or not receive from them.

Meanwhile, there's also nothing I can do when I encounter someone who sees 9/11 as a tourist attraction, except to expect it when I least expect it. For example, on a beautiful day in upper Manhattan, I met a tourist who wanted to know where to find breakfast and also how to get to the 9/11 museum. Confronted by this stranger inadvertently treating my personal tragedy as just another stop on her visit to Manhattan, I fantasized about exploding, saying, "Can you say hi to my husband's name when you're down there?" But then I let it go and reclaimed the day.

4. I spend as much time observing nature as possible, both near and far away, especially on the 9/11 anniversaries. 

Is there a study linking relief from PTSD and watching wildlife? I don't know, but I'm convinced of its value. Every day I seek out the urban nature that exists alongside me, take a pause from my own business to witness theirs. In the early morning, there are dogs on the loose in the parks, birds who live here and others just passing through, and sometimes a raccoon balled up in a tree or popping out of a garbage can.  (I don't like squirrels and rats.)  On Broadway, whenever I occasionally see a red-tailed hawk glide high above me, I feel lucky. Nature in its sudden gorgeous display counterbalances all the scary and violent possibilities, imagined and real, that can happen or have happened in the world.

I seek out the ocean, especially on the 9/11 anniversaries. I take a full day vacation off from my grief and confront wave after wave, up to my thighs in delight. I accept its random yet ordered power as my antidote to the fire, chaos and destruction at the towers all those years ago. 

5. I found an ember of light in the darkness.

I have an unwavering belief in the goodness of people, especially New Yorkers, that began soon after the attack and persists. In the period after September 11th, as I walked my dog around my neighborhood in shock, barely able to function and very pregnant, an acquaintance stopped to talk to me with purpose. Knowing my husband had just been killed, she revealed to me that her first husband had committed suicide some years before. Just like me, she'd experienced the sudden violent death of her husband, but somehow she'd gotten through it all and flourished. By standing in front of me in generosity, as an example of life beyond catastrophic circumstances, she'd given me a small bright ember that I held tightly through years of hardship. She made me believe in the impossible: that one day I'd be OK too. 

This past fall I attended a Tuesday's Children retreat for 9/11 widows and military widows whose husbands also died by violent traumatic circumstances. During a therapeutic session, the facilitator wanted us all to describe something we'd each achieved after our husbands' deaths. Without thinking, I blurted out that I could transform bad things into good things. It was an odd statement, yet it was true in so many ways. And I felt myself glow fierce and bright as a person who could now light the way just a little bit for someone else who now felt vulnerable and alone. 

By Alissa Torres

Alissa Torres lives in New York City with her family. Her graphic novel memoir, "American Widow," was published by Villard.

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