I Mark My Personal Loss In the Shadow of Our Collective Grief

On a sunny, cloudless 9/11 day, I lost my dad without the luxury of a goodbye or final words of closure. The suddenness of it sucked me into a vortex of anger, fear and longing. My father was a complicated man with secrets and life choices I am only now coming to terms with. Regardless, I loved him unconditionally and couldn’t grasp a world without him. 

Few people know my 9/11 story because it took place exactly 15 years before the tragic events of September 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, commemorating my dad felt uncomfortable and disingenuous. I thought that especially on that date we were all better served focusing on something bigger; a tragedy felt across the world. 

Maureen's dad
The author and her dad (via Maureen Stiles)

I mourned the loss of my father quietly and privately

So, each year, I quietly mark this personal anniversary in the shadow of our collective loss as a nation. I don’t post on social media or talk about it with anyone but rather cede to the emotions in solitude and sadly usher in another year without him. 

His passing ripped a hole in my heart much like the destruction wrought by the planes that ravaged the Twin Towers. Yet, I have always believed that the grief of 9/11 family members somehow superseded mine. I did not give myself permission to properly honor my father’s passing out of some misguided respect for those who perished in New York, Pennsylvania and DC. 

As 9/11 is once again upon us, I am particularly reflective. Perhaps it is the 20th anniversary interviews or the wisdom of advancing age that has made me pensive. I see now that comparing grief and loss is a folly. Mourning is messy work with no expiration date, no instructions and no correct way to compare tragedies. 

Grief is an illogical, individual process that dips and sways and rises and falls in unexpected moments. Some days, I welcome the memories, basking in their warmth like a golden, summer sun. Other days those memories crash into my subconscious, dark and thunderous. Nearly 35 years later I am still churning and processing the sorrow.  I imagine it is much the same for the family members of those lost to the terrorist attacks. 

It feels wrong to compare grief

My guess is that not one of those individuals would begrudge me my grief. Just as they would not deny the celebration of the births and milestones that occurred on that fateful day two decades ago.  Instead, they would likely ask to hear my story and nod in solidarity as I recount how time shifts the ways grief grips, but never fully releases, those left behind. It is a real, tangible part of every day in some fashion. 

We would sit a spell and commiserate about this thing called fate. A rescheduled business trip, a missed train, an early meeting, or walking to the copier were the defining line between life and death in some cases. For me,  I will forever question the improbability of discovering my father’s cancer on a Monday and getting a call Thursday that the disease had already claimed him. 

What kind of universe could be so cruel? 

Because we have no answers, we must seek solace in and with each other for the most universal of all experiences, the loss of someone we love. We find commonality in the loss of a parent, spouse, child, sibling or friend even if the circumstances and path to that loss were different. 

So, on this 9/11, I will openly join thousands of individuals in grief and remembrance both personally and nationally. I plan to talk to my children about the grandfather they never met and acknowledge my pain. We will also discuss the terrorist attacks that they are too young to remember with a warning to always practice gratitude and grace.

Finally, this year, I will release the notion of my grief being lesser than anyone else’s. The way in which we lose a loved one is not nearly as important as the way in which it shatters us. Together, we can shine the light of those gone before us to guide the rest of us on the path to healing and growth.  

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About Maureen Stiles

Maureen Stiles is a Washington DC based freelance journalist, columnist and editor. With over a decade of published work in the parenting and humor sector, Maureen has reached audiences around the globe. In addition to published works, she has been quoted in the Washington Post and The New York Times on topics surrounding parenting and family life. Maureen is the author of The Driving Book for Teens and a contributor to the book Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults as well as regularly featured on Today's Parenting Community and Grown and Flown.

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