Lisa Luckett, 9/11 widow, explains how tragedy helps us grow

"If everyone treated each other like they treat 9/11 families, the world be a much gracious place," says Luckett

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published September 11, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

The funeral service for firefighter Vernon Cherry in Brooklyn, New York, June 22, 2002.  Cherry was among 342 firefighters who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center. (AP/Radcliffe Roye)
The funeral service for firefighter Vernon Cherry in Brooklyn, New York, June 22, 2002. Cherry was among 342 firefighters who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center. (AP/Radcliffe Roye)

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Lisa Luckett’s daughter wasn’t feeling well, so she took her to school a little late. When she returned to her home in New Jersey, a friend called her and asked which World Trade Center building her husband, Teddy, worked in. She replied, “the one with the antenna on it. Why?”

Luckett is one of the thousands whose life was changed forever that devastating day. Seventeen years later, Luckett explains how 9/11 sparked a path for personal growth, and how the power of kindness can make the world a better place, in her new book “The Light in 9/11: Shocked by Kindness, Healed by Love.”

In this interview with Salon, Luckett talks about how she spun tragedy into a new mission in life to help others better handle loss and tragedy. This interview has been edited and condensed for print.

Nicole Karlis: Your story is about turning fear into love, and how 9/11 was a catalyst for your own personal growth. Can you share more about that journey, and how your perspective on tragedy changed after 9/11?

Lisa Luckett: 9/11 was a catalyst for me to experience remarkable personal growth and get my head around that. [Previously] I tried to fit my entire life [around] everyone else's rules but my own, and the morning of 9/11 was the catalyst for [changing] that.

The book is really about healing from trauma — and not just one, catastrophic trauma, but many small traumas over a lifetime. It's about a more global conversation... 17 years later, we have trauma all the time now, man-made and natural [trauma]. It's not a matter of is trauma going to happen again — it's going to happen, but let's be better prepared emotionally to handle it — [to] stand on a foundation where you understand the process of grief, the process of understanding, to let go of the things you can't control.

It’s a choice in fact, and the ultimate choice being that ... it’s about healing from trauma and choosing to see the light in your struggle, because the light is the lesson. We just have to be nice, and if we can make random acts of kindness, we're actually filling our own soul. We feel better.

In the beginning, was it clear to you that this would be an opportunity for growth? Is that what kept you moving through the grief? Or was it the kindness of others?

You know, Nicole, it was effortless. It was literally divinely inspired. I just didn't know it then. Literally, two hours after the whole experience, after the buildings fell down, I walked in my living room and I saw everyone so desperate in their pain and their fear, and all they wanted to do was help me.

I couldn't get my head around [Ted's death]. I mean that was shocking. I was in the experience of the event itself like everyone else, and so I wanted to help them, and they wanted to help me. I realized the only way I could actually help them was to let them in. That's when a voice [came] in and basically said, “Lisa, let them help you and let down your guard; show that vulnerability and surrender.” And I said, “Okay.”

I walked in through this metaphoric door, and I was overwhelmed by this grace and this gratitude and these waves of love and this positivity. I've always seen [the glass] as being half-full, but I had a really hard life. I had a life where people weren't very nice at home, and in my community, Interestingly, 9/11 actually was a catalyst to ultimately heal me.

That’s so inspiring.

The morning of 9/11 was so catastrophic and enormous and gigantic, in the sense of its shock, and it was just complete derailment of everything we knew. I literally got stunned into a place of self-trust. Because it was so clear that no one knew what to do, that all the systems and all the structures we had [were] broken.

All these years later, we as an American culture [are] still pretty young, and we have the two questions that prompted this book: Why were we so emotionally unprepared to handle 9/11? Where was all this wise counsel to help us through it?

We have to learn how to to build our emotional muscles and to build our resilience. We are all emotional creatures. So as a result 9/11 happened, and we tipped over.

What do you want people to take away from 9/11, 17 years later?

Instead of what’s constantly echoed — which is “never forget” — when I hear, “never forget,” I never forget the beauty and the grace and the compassion and the resiliency and the incredible strength of the human spirit that came afterward.

In fact, there was a priest down at 9/11 that I heard quoted one time, and he said that people came up to him and said, “How could God let this happen? How could God let this happen?” His answer to them was what brought this on was evil, and what came afterwards was God.

It's the grace... It's the grace of, how we come together in struggle. I never expected people to show up for me. I thought my family would take care of me. Well, turns out my family was so broken before 9/11, that they just broke further afterward. They were of no help, In fact, they did more damage.

Because we did not have an emotional footing. We had dysfunction, alcoholism, and things that you cannot set your feet on. The ground moves; it can't be stable... The people you thought would be there show up for you. [And] there are always people that you never expect that show up.


What did you learn about how America deals with grief? What are your thoughts on that?

I believe we enable victimization. Even you — you said, “I'm so sorry for your loss.” Well, 17 years later, who gets that after someone dies? In truth, if everyone treated each other like they treat 9/11 families, the world be a much gracious place.

As far as the victimization goes, we wallow in it, because we don't have anybody. Again, where was the wise counsel to help us through it, to say, “Come on, let's learn from this?”

How do you wish people would really treat those who have really been directly and personally impacted by 9/11, like yourself?

I think everybody does a great job and I want them to do that for everybody else. I would like them to see every person in their day, the way they greet me because if we gave that moment —  because I will promise you this, Nicole, you scratch the surface of anyone's life, and everyone has at least a 9/11, maybe not a national event, but they have struggled, suffered, had amazing trauma and most people, 90% of the world carries it with incredible grace and wisdom.

What’s next for you?

My mission is emotional and mental health. If you understand who you are, you're going to navigate your life a lot differently than if you're following everyone else's rules about who you are and trying to live by other people's standards. You have to live by your own standards and be authentically who you are [for] us all to fit together.

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Lisa Luckett's book, "The Light in 9/11: Shocked by Kindness, Healed by Love," was released this summer from Cozmeena Enlightened Publishing. 


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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9/11 Grief Lisa Luckett Mental Health