"No day shall erase you from the memory of time." – Virgil
The above quote, from ancient Roman poet Virgil, is centered within a wall-length mosaic in Memorial Hall, which sits between the two main exhibitions of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Each letter on the wall was forged by artist Tom Joyce from steel that was recovered from the World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The words themselves appear to leap out from the rest of the mosaic, comprised of 2,983 hand-painted, watercolor squares, each its own shade of blue – one square for each life lost in the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 and 1993. The piece, created in 2014 by artist Spencer Finch, is titled, "Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning." When interviewed about the installation by The New York Times, Finch said, “It had to be about that human quality of remembering, how it’s so fuzzy in some ways, and in other ways it’s so completely clear."
After twenty years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks – in which 2,996 lives were taken in New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania – Finch’s observations on the human quality of remembering resonate.
I do not remember the color of the sky on that morning, because I was rushing to get to work in the U.S. Capitol complex, where I was a then-junior level staffer for a U.S. Congressman from New York. Similarly, I do not remember many details of the frenetic moments in the weeks that followed, which were an endless blur of ringing phones, short deadlines, worrisome news reports, fears of additional attacks, and, very soon, military action. But there is a great deal that I do remember about that day, and about the year of loss within a changed world that followed, and these memories are crystallized in my mind and inseparable from my pride in public service.
In one day, coordinated efforts by al-Qaeda terrorists resulted in the largest loss of life in any single event on U.S. soil to date and ushered in a period of national grieving, the shape and weight of which we had not experienced in most of our lifetimes. “Never Forget” became one of several maxims following the attacks, not only referencing the massive loss of life due to terrorism but also to honor the selfless first responders who risked, and gave, their own lives in an effort to save others.
Importantly, in addition to the immediate deaths due to the terrorist attacks, we must remember and memorialize those who have since died of complications due to 9/11 and bear witness to those who are living now with life-threatening conditions as a result of the attacks. In 2018, the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office estimated that out of the approximately 10,000 first responders and others who were at Ground Zero and have developed cancer as a result of exposure to toxic dust, over 2,000 have died due to 9/11-related illnesses. An estimated one in eight firefighters who were at Ground Zero have developed cancer. And at least 221 New York City police officers have died in the years since 2001 from illnesses related to the attacks.
Twenty years after 9/11, now as a thanatologist, I return to my memories of 9/11 when teaching undergraduate students in my courses on mass death. The students I teach now have no memory of 9/11, and sometimes, I have struggled to find ways to communicate effectively the shock and profundity of that day, as well as the disorientation and scale of national grief that followed. In a few days, I will begin teaching this course to a fresh class of students, each of whom has weathered eighteen months of an unprecedented global pandemic, and I believe, sadly, that due to their recent experiences, an understanding of 9/11 and its reach may be easier for students to attain than in any previous iteration of this course.
It seems impossible now not to reflect on the events of 9/11 and its aftermath through the lens of our current and ongoing mass death event. While the differences between the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the COVID-19 public health crisis are many, I find myself reflecting on the similarities between that epoch of grief and the one in which we now live.
Both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic caused a publicly unexpected and massive loss of innocent life; both elicited nationwide shock, disorientation, and confusion; and both precipitated an individually experienced yet universally felt loss of the assumptive world – a troubling knowledge that the world as we knew it, the world in which we felt safe in navigating, no longer existed.
I have also found myself returning to thoughts of the similarities between the months following 9/11 and the span of this pandemic that give me hope. Then and now, grief became a daily part of the national conversation in ways that were not existent between these events. Grief became, and has become again, worthy of public attention and recognition. Additionally, we see recognition of and support for first responders, funeral directors, and health care professionals whose tireless dedication to the ill, the deceased, and survivors, is being acknowledged again. Perhaps most importantly, we have seen countless acts of kindness, between strangers as often as friends, which can serve as a reminder that in the face of tragedy, even small acts of care and compassion can have an immeasurable impact on someone who is suffering or grieving.
As we all take a day in the midst of this pandemic to remember 9/11 and to memorialize those who perished, I will also be thinking about what the aftermath of 9/11 can teach us about our current moment. Artist Spencer Finch said that remembering is “so fuzzy in some ways,” and as I wrote above, many of my own memories of the days following 9/11 are a blur; he added that “in other ways it’s so completely clear,” and what I remember clearly, and carry with me from 9/11 and through this pandemic, is a profound sense of genuine patriotism and pulling together as a country as a means of demonstrating the indomitability of the American spirit. I remember that democracy is a living idea; it is advanced citizenship. It comes with both rights and responsibilities to one another and in times of national tragedy and crisis, we owe a great deal to one another and not merely to ourselves. I remember the power of resilience and, just as importantly, endurance in the face of seemingly senseless and overwhelming loss and immeasurable grief.
I remember thinking that I was living through the watershed moment of my generation, the event by which we would measure other events as being either before or after. Just as I remember feeling the initial impact of 9/11 and understood that it would unalterably change every aspect of our country, so too do my parents recall in similarly minute detail where they were when they learned of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, and the days that followed, not unlike my grandparents’ recollections, with every moment recited from memory of the consequences of December 7, 1941, when they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And we live now within another watershed moment that will define a generation.
The events of 9/11 encompass a national tragedy that deserves remembrance and ongoing memorialization. That day and its aftermath should not be considered only once a year but should remain woven into the fabric of our cultural consciousness so that we may continue to attain meaning from the sacrifices made by civilians and soldiers, first responders and volunteers. Reflecting on 9/11 within our current historic moment may assist us in ensuring that we do whatever possible to preserve the tenets of life and liberty upon which our country was founded and to strengthen our commitment and responsibility to one another to prevent mass death events such as these from happening again, and to be a source of solace and comfort when they do.
Learn more about the role funeral directors played following 9/11 on the Remembering A Life Podcast:
Educational and Support Resources
If you or someone you care about continues to grieve a loss due to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, wishes to learn about supports for those affected, or would like to gain further information on memorials, I encourage you to explore the following resources:
9/11 Memorial & Museum
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is the country’s principal institution concerned with exploring 9/11, documenting its impact, and examining its continuing significance. The museum honors those who were killed in the 2001 and 1993 attacks; offers extensive in-person and virtual educational resources; and actively engages with 9/11 family members, survivors, and rescue and recovery workers to provide services and moments of healing.
9/11 Tribute Museum
The 9/11 Tribute Museum is a project of the September 11th Families’ Association; it opened in 2006 and was inspired in part by the widows and families of the New York Fire Department. The museum offers both in-person and virtual programming and is committed to bringing together those who want to learn about 9/11 with those who experienced it.
Tuesday’s Children was formed within days following the 9/11 and is one of the first organizations of its type. It offers comprehensive services ranging from crisis counseling and life management skills to college and career prep for teens, in addition to individualized counseling and wellness supports. Tuesday’s Children serves any individuals and families who have lost a loved one to mass violence, terrorism, or military service since 9/11.
Voices Center for Resilience (formerly known as Voices of September 11th)
Founded to assist the families of 9/11 victims in figuring out how to file death certificates, navigate social service agencies, and obtain assistance from charitable institutions, Voices provides long-term support to survivors of 9/11 losses through in-person support groups, anxiety and depression screenings, and speaker series. Currently, Voices builds upon their legacy by additionally assisting communities around the country and abroad in preparing for and recovering from traumatic and mass death events.