It has been five years since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and for most Americans, the event has become an historical milestone, a memory -- albeit one with a visceral sting. But for the families and loved ones of the 3000 or so people who died on that day, coping with the loss continues to be a challenge that each deals with in his or her own way. This is also true in Monmouth County New Jersey, a cluster of middle-class suburban towns near New York that lost over 130 people on 9/11.
The quiet, cozy atmosphere in therapist Maureen Fitzsimmons' consulting room at Catholic Charities in Red Bank, New Jersey, belies the heart-wrenching personal dramas that are recounted here. Fitzsimmons has worked with many of the family members and loved ones of those who died on September 11th. She says that despite the so-called 'triggers' which remind Middletowners of that day - the new film "World Trade Center," newly-released audio of people calling for help, the growing number of out-of-town reporters on hand at the many local memorials -- many have "moved on."
"My sense is that some of these women are tired of being '9/11 widows,'" says Fitzsimmons, "and some people are making decisions they had postponed making for years, such as geographically relocating. For some of these young widows, that's a quantum leap."
Grief counselors agree that the ability to heal after a trauma is often related to a person's mental and emotional state prior to the event. Healing comes faster for those who were healthy before. But if someone was depressed, for example, becoming whole is more difficult. Not that "time means forgetting" - for anyone, says Fitzsimmons.
"… But people who successfully negotiate trauma are able to place it somewhere in their psyche that they don't approve of it, but they've accepted it…. Things will never be the same. But they can be good again."
September 11th affected many of those who did not lose a loved one directly. For
example, Middletown police chief, John Pollinger, was used to dealing with people's problems, great and small. But in the wake of the attacks, he often felt helpless to do more than provide a little comfort to some families, and last February, he retired.
"I found after 9/11 that I had become less tolerant of what I perceived to be petty complaints that people had brought forward. Kids playing basketball in the street and bouncing a basketball late at night, or… the amount of traffic that is on the road." Pollinger says that sometimes he "wanted to shake people and say 'three thousand people died that day and had their dreams and hopes and everything taken away from them. And if somehow they could change places with us, they'd say 'stop complaining! You are alive and you have a family and you have a life!'"
Until recently, it has been merely half a life for Louella Quigley and her family. Her 25-year-old daughter Beth was at work on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck. She was killed instantly.
"You know, it's very hard when you lose a child because no matter how that old that child is [was], you can't do anything to fill a void that is constantly with you every single day. You wake up with it. You go to bed with it. We struggle every day to get through day by day, my husband, my other daughter and myself. And each new day might being some other challenge we have to overcome."
Because Beth was physically so close to the explosion, her body was vaporized, making burial impossible, and closure for her family far harder to achieve.
"I can't really pray," says Quigley, who is a Catholic, "other than to say 'rest in peace.' I really can't find an answer. Like why are there so many evil people in this world? And why did this happen?" she sobs. She likens her predicament to a web. "…And sometimes you feel you're tangled up in one spot and you have to struggle to get out."
Even traditionally joyful events can turn bittersweet for a family in the Quigley's situation. However, Louella Quigley recently learned that the old wound could itself bring new resolve.
"Suzanne, our other daughter, Suzanne, became engaged and … the sibling survival guilt really surfaced again," she recalls. "She'd ask herself 'Why am I here? Why wasn't it me? Why did my sister leave? Now I accepted this marriage proposal. Why should I be happy?' After she became engaged, I thought she has every right to her happiness, and we as her parents need to show her that we support this and we are going to go on."
Ms. Quigley says that she and husband made the firm decision to "say yes to life" in honor of her late child Beth. "Beth was an active participant in life. She was not passive. She wasn't just watching. She loved life!"