Life After Grief
9/11/2001. It devastated our country and took people from their loved ones in what
seemed like the blink of an eye. In its wake, tens of thousands were left to cope with
senseless and soul-shattering loss. On the fifth anniversary month of that terrible event,
a 9/11 widow—whose firefighter husband died a hero attempting to rescue people from
the burning World Trade Center—reveals how she struggled to maintain her mental
and physical health in the days, months and years following such a life-altering tragedy.
It started with jaw pain first—the clenching of the tender area where the jawbone meets the skull—as I watched the World Trade Center burning on television. It was the morning of my eighth wedding anniversary and I had just dropped my son, Aidan, off for his second full day of kindergarten. My husband Dave, a firefighter with a unit in Brooklyn, should have been home getting ready for our day inManhattan together. At the end of his night shift at about 9 am, we planned on going to Central Park for lunch at the boathouse and then taking a personal tour of the sculpture exhibit at the Whitney Museum. Now, instead of getting on the subway with Dave, I am standing in my Brooklyn living room with my friend Lorie and we are witnessing what feels like the end of the world.
As I watched the first tower fall, I knew, on a cellular level, Dave was gone. My heart felt as if it was actually breaking, fissures cracking across its surface and exploding like glass. My knees involuntarily buckled, and sound and sight became distorted. I can almost feel it even now, five years later, the powerful force of adrenaline surging through my body. What was happening inside me was cataclysmic, as though my body was collapsing like the towers, but all of my thoughts and energy were focused on Dave, and praying that somewhere in the midst of that horrible wreckage, he was okay.
When the second tower fell, Lorie panicked. Her kids went to the same nearby school as Aidan. “Do you think they’re safe?” she asked, worry wrinkling her brow. I feel guilty about it now, but Aidan was the last thing on my mind. I was too busy speeding through my 17 years with Dave and trying to grasp the thought that he would not be coming home. I sent Lorie to check on the kids and told her to return with a pack of cigarettes. I hadn’t smoked in 13 years. After she left, I opened a bottle of wine, ignoring the bitter taste at that hour of the morning. I paced as fast as my mind was churning and when Lorie returned, the cigarette forced me to take deep, long breaths. I tried hard to slow my pounding heart as I watched dust from the towers settle softly on the patch of grass in my small backyard.
By 5 pm, it felt like years had passed. I finished the pack of cigarettes and had switched to scotch to keep my hands from shaking. Friends arrived by the dozens offering me anti-depression medication and sleep aids. I was in a foggy stupor, but can still recall the way my shoulders ached from curling forward like a fiddlehead fern when I cried, the way I refused to eat and the way my eyes burned.
The days bled into each other as we waited for any news from Ground Zero. By October I had attended dozens of memorial services paying tribute to body-less coffins and with Dave’s 38th birthday approaching, I made the painful decision to plan a service for him. It was an agonizing time, one that took a terrible toll on my body as I tried to absorb the magnitude of Dave’s loss.
In those surreal and painful weeks after 9/11, I hardly ate and when I did it was as if my taste buds were as numb and in shock as I was. I drank giant cups of coffee to get through my days and took medication every night to get to sleep. I stopped exercising, my skin became blotchy and I continued smoking almost a pack a day.
Before 9/11, Dave and I had followed a healthy lifestyle. We took yoga together and cooked organic meals. I jogged and taught gymnastics to help pay the rent, which also helped keep me in shape. My well-being, physical and mental, was always important to me and I tried to be aware of the connection between the two.
But after 9/11, it all felt utterly pointless. I sped through my days, trying in vain to stay ahead of my grief, stave off my loneliness and live a life I couldn’t bear without Dave. Adrenaline and rage sustained me as I met with politicians, gave media interviews, wrote eulogies and speeches, attended press conferences and answered dozens of phone calls. I even started an organization to oversee the recovery effort at Ground Zero. I had never worked harder and I ignored the pleas from my family and friends to slow down.
When I wasn’t working, I was drinking, practically running to the bar after each long funeral. A cocktail and a cigarette with the other widows and firefighters was the only reprieve from the unbearable pain of loved ones lost. And even though my friends were concerned for my health, they lit my cigarettes and poured me drinks and mumbled, “Whatever gets you through.”
Every day, cards, quilts, teddy bears, checks, food, music, books and prayers would arrive from friends and strangers, relatives and neighbors in a seemingly endless ribbon of generosity. Even lasagnas magically appeared at my doorstep. Looking back, these acts of kindness gave me a sense of hope that someday I would get through it all—perhaps even enjoy life again.
Among all the thoughtful gifts were letters offering free trips to places all over the country and the world. After reading them, I’d place them gently among the pile of sympathy cards and drawings from kids, hoping that some day I would have the energy to thank them all.
I felt a compelling need to stay close to home, but one trip offer caught my eye. It was from Canyon Ranch, a health spa in Tucson, Arizona; their motto read: “The Power of Possibility.” They offered a “grief healing week”—any time we wanted to take it—for the spouses of firefighters who had died on 9/11. I had grown quite close to a few of the widows from Dave’s firehouse. They wanted to take the spa up on their offer, but I was reluctant to leave my son and my organization that had snowballed into a vast network of families fighting political battles and addressing recovery issues.
“The world will survive without you,” my friend Theresa said with playful sarcasm. “Let’s do it.” So in December 2002, Theresa, myself and five other widows boarded a plane for Tucson.
At the airport in Arizona, a smiling employee from the spa greeted us and hoisted our heavy bags into the back, refusing our help.
“I feel better already,” Denise said collapsing into the seat of the van. We were a motley crew of women, who in different circumstances would probably never be friends. Among our group was a housewife from Long Island, a nurse from Queens, a waitress from Staten Island and me—a part-time gymnastics teacher, sometime comedienne and freelance writer from Brooklyn. Despite our differences, losing our husbands had driven us fiercely close as together we navigated single parenting and the desolation of an empty bed.
Nobody spoke on the trip to the spa. We were too busy gazing at the beautiful Sonoran desert, its purple Catalina Mountains surrounding us. The spa—with its southwestern architecture, sculptures, waterfalls and blooming cacti—was like nothing I had ever seen. But even with all this beauty around me, it felt bittersweet, something to be tasted but not swallowed.
After we settled into our rooms, we were brought to Chrystie, our “personal coordinator” whose job it was to help us plan our week. Chrystie sat on a giant rubber physio ball and explained the various treatments. Most of us had never been able to afford massage, let alone a session of aromatherapy or healing touch, but everyone was excited to try the new treatments. “Anything that helps” seemed to be the consensus.
As the week progressed, I noticed profound changes taking place in all of us. With no drinking or smoking allowed at the spa, I was more clear-headed than I had been in more than a year. Insomnia, endless meetings, dozens of funerals and single motherhood: I started to realize how depleted I really was. At the ranch I began each morning with a meditation and yoga class that was held in an airy studio overlooking bright yellow cactus flowers. I breathed deeply for what seemed like the first time since Dave died, and felt profound sadness co-existing with a sense of peace and tranquility. I soon found a few of the other widows had felt the same conflicting emotions. I was not alone.
Martha and I took hip-hop class each day with an energetic teacher whose rubbery face stretched into a smile as he danced. I hadn’t even thought about dancing since Dave surprised me with a birthday party the spring before he died, but now I was feeling that same sense of joy. Aerobic cardio workouts like kickboxing were just the thing to express the rage within me that felt like a low-grade fever. I kicked as hard as I could, sweat flying off my head, my muscles aching. It was a release like I had never known and I ended each class panting hard, like a toddler finishing a tantrum.
No class, however, could match what I felt during a massage. I had underestimated the power of human touch, how 17 years of Dave rubbing my feet, squeezing my shoulders when I wrote at the computer or spooning me in bed each night had made me feel complete. After Dave died, I felt crazed with longing, like an orphan left in the crib too long. The massage experience began with soothing music in a dimly lit room, the awareness of my skin against the soft white sheets as I crawled onto the massage table and pressed my face into the toilet-shaped cradle. This was all a prelude to the warm, healing hands that made my skin sigh and my muscles—which had grown taut with sadness—feel some relief. Sometimes I was so overwhelmed that my tears would land silently on the floor below, as I gave over to the intense emotions human touch can evoke.
Thai massage was equally intense, but more invigorating than the traditional massage. The therapist stretched and rubbed my muscles at the same time, unfurling my grief-stricken shoulders and easing the tension in my jaw. Instead of feeling tired as I did from a regular massage, I felt relaxed and revitalized. What I noticed more than anything was that, while I still cried each day and missed Dave with an indefinable ache, I was slowly beginning to heal.
The mere fact that I could take yoga was a testament to this. When I returned to yoga just a few months after Dave died, I found it to be emotionally draining. The breathing required in yoga opened me up, making me feel so raw and vulnerable that even the teacher suggested I give it up until some time passed. I ended up taking Pilates instead, an abdominal-based strengthening exercise that operates on the theory that if the “core” center of your body is strong, then you can do anything. It was harder than it looked and I found that working on the machines required the kind of concentration that took my mind temporarily off my grief.
At the ranch my favorite treatment was called watsu, a massage during which I floated in a warm pool. With a soft light glowing, the therapist transported me through the water as if I were a child being taught to swim, although the swishing of my relaxed body back and forth in the water was an experience one could only describe as womb-like. It was hard to give myself over at first, my body tensing when the therapist released me into the water, but soon it was a like a meditative dance, as the gentle sound of the water helped me finally exhale and release a year-and-a-half of grief and stress.
The other widows felt positive effects, too. Martha’s face softened at the edges. She had grown hardened from the loss of her husband Tommy, her face pressed into a permanent expression of sadness and anger. At dinner, we discussed the benefits of our spa experience and the profound connection of mind, body and spirit. We knew that it was more than just being pampered; it was the overwhelming feeling of being taken care of during a time when we had been nurturing our children alone, and being cared for when we were exhausted from caring for others. Most of all, it was the beginning of letting go. We were not forgetting our husbands. We were finally releasing the sadness we had held tight within our bodies for all these months.
By the time we boarded the plane for home, we were all transformed. Theresa, in particular, looked serene as she stared out the window. Her husband Mike was never found and she had been raising their now two-year-old alone. To not have a resting place for Mike devastated Theresa, but the ranch possessed for her an intangible sense of tranquility. The owners even let Theresa bury
Mike’s shirt next to a small, glistening stream.
I came away with a new commitment to not only living again, but to living healthily. I began eating better and this summer I quit smoking and started taking yoga classes again, with a newfound devotion to my breath and understanding the connection between my mind and spirit. I even joined a gym. When the gum-chomping receptionist said my husband could receive a discount if he was a firefighter, I replied calmly that he was killed on 9/11 and managed to stifle a laugh as she screamed to a coworker: “HEY NOREEN! WE STILL GIVE DISCOUNTS TO THE WIDOWS?”
Grief is not a linear journey, or one that has a finish line or last day. It lives in you and around you, the sadness just changing temperature according to the day. But now I feel a sense of peace and have had more moments of feeling like the person I used to be with Dave. Of course, I still have difficult days, but I make sure to check into my body and to quiet my mind. I am slowly healing, one healthy breath at a time.
Marian Fontana, a writer, comedienne and mom, currently lives in Staten Island, New York. She is the author of A Widow’s Walk (Simon & Schuster, 2006) and the president of the 9/11 Families Association in New York City. This past spring, she went back to Canyon Ranch in Arizona to read from her book and lecture women on dealing with grief.