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How One Family Grieves Their Son, 20 Years After 9/11

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 12, 2021

This is an extraordinary story by Jennifer Senior about the various ways in which members of a family grieved the death of a beloved son who died in NYC on 9/11: What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind.

Early on, the McIlvaines spoke to a therapist who warned them that each member of their family would grieve differently. Imagine that you’re all at the top of a mountain, she told them, but you all have broken bones, so you can’t help each other. You each have to find your own way down.

It was a helpful metaphor, one that may have saved the McIlvaines’ marriage. But when I mentioned it to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at UC Irvine who’s spent a lifetime studying the effects of sudden, traumatic loss, she immediately spotted a problem with it: “That suggests everyone will make it down,” she told me. “Some people never get down the mountain at all.”

This is one of the many things you learn about mourning when examining it at close range: It’s idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome. A lot of the theories you read about grief are great, beautiful even, but they have a way of erasing individual experiences. Every mourner has a very different story to tell.

That therapist was certainly right, however, in the most crucial sense: After September 11, those who had been close to Bobby all spun off in very different directions. Helen stifled her grief, avoiding the same supermarket she’d shopped in for years so that no one would ask how she was. Jeff, Bobby’s lone sibling, had to force his way through the perdition of survivor’s guilt. Bob Sr. treated his son’s death as if it were an unsolved murder, a cover-up to be exposed. Something was fishy about 9/11.

I read parts of this with tears in my eyes because I have grief in my life right now. Many of us do, I think. Because of the pandemic — a big, mixed-up ball of emotional energy that can’t dissipate until, well, I don’t know when — because of past trauma kicking up dirt, because of the way we’ve treated others and ourselves, because we want to help others, especially our children, deal with their grief and big feelings more effectively. This piece was an urgent reminder of just how long grief can last and how many ways it can manifest in different people.