In Bereavement, Pioneers on a Lonely Trail
The New York Times The New York Times New York Region September 8, 2002  

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In Bereavement, Pioneers on a Lonely Trail

By KIRK JOHNSON

Their community was created by cataclysm, then bound together by a vocabulary of grief and the stamp of history. But a year later, the families of Sept. 11 a small city's worth of widows, parents and other kin touched by terror say that what defines them most is their sense of separation from other Americans.

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As a nation that wept together resumes its hectic, distracted course, family members and outsiders say, September's bereaved have become a lost legion, left to find their own way.

For Joan Parker, whose husband, Philip, was working on the 99th floor at the World Trade Center on the morning of the attacks, the realization of that growing fissure began with a telephone call last fall. The voice on the other end was one she had not heard in 25 years, since high school.

Over the following weeks, Mrs. Parker and her friend reconnected amid the sorrow and horror. But then a different tone began to creep in. The friend began to ask about money.

"She started getting into questions about what kind of house I lived in and what kind of job my husband had," Mrs. Parker said.

How much would the Parkers collect from the charities and compensation funds? Was paying the families of the victims really a good idea? Mrs. Parker gradually became uncomfortable and stopped calling back. Then the calls themselves stopped. And so, by increments, the gap widened.

Who are the families, anyway? Into what category of American experience should they be filed? Are they crime victims? War refugees? Heroes? Will an image of greed that attached itself to the few outweigh the nation's empathy for the many?

History provides only a flimsy guide. Like Holocaust survivors, scholars say, many of the families bear intimate witness to evil; like Vietnam War veterans, they have clung to one another through the crisis, forging an identity.

But no one, least of all the family members themselves, knows where their road leads. Some experts in social movements compare them to canaries in a coal mine or messengers from the front vanguards of an emerging national conscience that will nag, wheedle and shame the nation on issues of terrorism and memory for generations to come. Or they could become just another special interest group carping for attention and money, their moral capital squandered.

"The closest thing that I've been able to think of and some people might feel it's an odd word is that they've been blessed, in the Old Testament Ecclesiastical sense," said Kai Erikson, a sociologist at Yale University. Being blessed has sugary connotations now, Professor Erikson said, but to the ancient Hebrews, it was a deeply ambivalent gift.

"For better or worse," he said of the families, "they've been made different by this very peculiar thing that's happened to them."

Generalizing about 10,000 to 15,000 turbulent souls and even more if extended relations and friends are counted is a dangerous thing. Some family members have forsaken contact, retreating into isolation. Some who leaped into action last fall have withdrawn, while others have begun to reach out in the last few months. Only a small vanguard is directly involved with political issues like a Manhattan memorial; most families have been silent, their stories still untold. On many issues they are deeply divided, as are all Americans.

But through more than 100 interviews over the last two months with family members, therapists, academics and politicians focusing on the relatives of the office workers, who constituted the vast majority of those killed some signposts to their journey have emerged.

Women, responding differently than men to the maelstrom of media, politics and grief, stepped forward to lead, creating networks that solidified into a community backbone. The Internet became crucial, connecting people and allowing a virtual community to become real. The myriad organizations that arose from lobbying groups to living room kaffeeklatsches of intimates who say they have bonded for life became vehicles for change, altering the participants by the very chemistry of bringing them together.

The rest of the nation has, of course, been down its own rocky road. Economic uncertainty, war and other echoes of terror, from anthrax to shoe bombs, have haunted American life, creating the sense for many people, social critics say, that Sept. 11 was a jinx, a triggering event for so many other things that have gone wrong. Moving on with life, head down, eyes forward in a real way, whistling past the graveyard has become, those experts say, an understandable and very human choice.

Many family members, on the other hand, say they have been completely transformed. Some describe being seized and swept away, changed whether they wanted to be or not, by the very effort of trying to make sense of what had happened. Where mainstream America became unwilling to look back, the families could not look away.

Maria Ragonese thought last fall that she might drown in the pool of pain that surrounded her after the death of her sister-in-law and friend, Laura Marie Ragonese-Snik.

"And yet ultimately I learned to swim," she said. "I'm involved with and doing things I never thought possible in the name of justice and in the honor of my dearest friend. I have become interconnected with so many people through this one event that it's now as if I have this huge extended family, all fighting the same fight."

The thousands of children, many too young to remember lost parents, provide another spark. Some family leaders say their passion about a memorial is driven by the thought of young people who will need such markers to absorb the enormity of what happened. Other parents worry that an alienated, lost generation, angry at the world and at their government a thousand Timothy McVeighs, as one mother put it could emerge if the next few years of recovery are bungled.

Gayle Regan, who lost her husband, Thomas, thinks her 3-year-old twins, Allai- star and Connor, have already been altered. When she hung an American flag outside her garage, the children wouldn't stop hugging it. She thinks that for them, the flag somehow represents the father who they have been told is in heaven.

"I feel like we're all these instruments of change now it's almost a song we have to sing," Mrs. Regan said.

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Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
A year after Sept. 11, the victims' families, like Tom and JoAnn Meehan, say that what defines them most is their sense of separation from other Americans.

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