The Nightmare is Realpentagon1

Your pain is so overwhelming, so

consuming, so numbing, so

unrelenting, so completely

personal to you.

How can anyone compare their loss with yours? 

Their pain with yours?

They can’t.

Because there is no pain like yours.

Because it’s yours.

Deeper Still by Phil Ginsburg

On September 11, 2001, my 32 year-old son, David, died at the Pentagon.  He was a husband, father, son, brother, nephew, cousin, and a treasured friend.  In those first shocking, devastating, first hours and weeks and months after September 11, there was no relief, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  I used to believe that terrible tragedies only happened to other families.  I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up, my heart had been shattered, and I was absolutely certain that I could not possibly bear the pain and anguish.

What now?

How does a parent survive the worst that can happen?

In the beginning it hurts so much that time will mean nothing and may seem to have stopped.  You may feel like a robot, numb and cold, planning funerals and memorial services.  I’ve heard that a merciful fog produced by a chemical in the brain helps grieving people through the first weeks.  It doesn’t last forever, but it can help you through in the beginning.

Breathe deeply and feel your child in your heart.  He or she may be gone from this world but your heart will never let go.  I wear a pendant given to me by a fellow traveler on this grief road: “The Heart Remembers.” If you believe in God, you know your child will be there to welcome you someday, and that is the greatest comfort of all.  It is said that the God of the Bible is the God of the brokenhearted.  If you are angry at God or don’t believe in Him now, please keep reading and know that this book is for you too.

This book is written in the hope that my experiences over the past ten years may lead you to something that will give you a reason to go on living.  Grief is a long and painful road with no shortcuts, but I promise that relief eventually comes.   It’s been ten years and not a day goes by that I don’t miss David and think about what happened to him.  I still get angry and sad, but somehow I have survived.  I feel David tucked safely into my heart.  He’s always with me.

We belong to the club no one wants to join and have embarked on a sad and lonely journey no one wants to take.  Take my hand and I hope I can show you at least a glimpse of the light at the other end of your long black tunnel.


Chapter 1: Your Immediate Survival

Your Immediate Survival

Don’t be ashamed or afraid to call your doctor.  He may prescribe something to help you for a few weeks, or he may want to discuss long term help when you are ready.  In the beginning, everyone wants to help and don’t hesitate to accept it.  If you don’t want help, say so.  Do what you have to do to survive.  Scream in the car, pound on your pillow, lie on the floor and kick, I used to watch a video of my daughter’s wedding with Dave and his family in it over and over.  In the beginning there is no escape.  Your mind won’t be able to accept or believe what has happened.  It feels like a nightmare or a horrible mistake.

The nights are excruciating.  Lying in the dark, it’s impossible not to think about your child and what happened to him or her.  Try playing soft soothing music, or, as silly as it sounds, listen to an old radio show.  There was a station where I live that played old radio dramas late at night.  In the summer I listened to baseball games (a sport my son loved).  The St. Louis Cardinal’s radio announcer, Jack Buck’s deep, calm voice, kept me company through some lonely and scary nights.    My husband and I took walks in the middle of the night talking about Dave and feeling him with us in the stillness and dark.  I would take slow deep breaths, concentrate on them, and count them.  I used to say my son’s name over and over at night – and block out everything else.  In the early days of grief you may feel like you are trapped. You wake up every morning expecting that something will have changed, but the pain and anguish is still there.

After September 11, a wonderful artist named Bronna Butler painted a picture called The Rescue for the victims’ families.  Her intention was to give us something peaceful and hopeful to look at to replace the images of burning buildings and devastation.  The picture depicts the side of one of the towers of the World Trade Center.  A woman is leaning out of the tower reaching towards an angel with outstretched arms.  I used to stare at that picture and imagine an angel reaching for my son.

The Rescue-1.90CW

Imagine your child at peace surrounded by loved ones who have passed on before.  When the heartbreaking images from your child’s death won’t let go, make up an image to replace it.  When I returned to work after the tragedy, I invented a fantasy to comfort myself.  Every day at the office I held it all inside, but by the end of the day I was on the verge of losing it.  The parking garage elevator at work had a glass wall.  I would imagine that the elevator was ascending into the clouds.

I can see through the glass in the back wall.  Floors of tall buildings are passing by.  The elevator climbs higher and higher.  I see brilliant blue sky, and the earth, a glowing blue-green marble below me.  Finally the elevator glides to a stop.  The door slowly slides open.  David, is standing there waiting for me with open arms and that amazing smile.

Make up scenarios.  Do what you can with your mind to survive.  A counselor I met and spoke to at a support group meeting led me through another visualization exercise that I’ve used when I am having trouble falling asleep.

Picture a beautiful meadow with orange and pink and yellow wildflowers and vibrant green grass.  The sky is deep azure blue. You are walking on a path across the meadow towards the woods on the other side.  The air is fresh and a soft warm breeze is blowing. You reach the sky-high fragrant evergreens and make your way down a sun-dappled path lined with ferns and moss until you come upon a clearing.  You see a sparkling, crystal clear, pond.  You walk to the edge and put one foot in the water.  A soothing peace flows through you. You are protected and comforted, cleansed of all hurt as you submerge yourself in the water.  You stay in the water as long as you like, reveling in the silent relief.   Eventually, you step out of the water and sit in the sun on a flat rock to dry yourself.  You sit there for a time feeling better than you ever believed you could feel again. You hear a rustling in the brush and sense a presence. You turn and someone is walking slowly towards you along the path through the woods. You recognize him.  He is your son.  Your heart pumps with joy.  You leap up and throw your arms around him.  You sit on the rock together as long as you want.  This is a place you can come back to again and again any time you want and stay as long as you like. Nothing can take it away.

There is no accepted or “normal” way to behave. You do what you can to survive the pain, in those first agonizing weeks and, believe it or not, survive you will.

CHAP. 2: The Club No One Wants To Join

There comes a time when you have gotten through the funeral or memorial service that the longing for relief from the pain overwhelms you.  The people who have been your rock through the first days and weeks may begin to grow tired of your grief.  They are sorry for your loss, but feel an urgent need to move on in their own lives.  Maybe you make them uncomfortable and conscious of the fact that tragedy can strike anyone.  You feel isolated in a room full of people.  It is unbearable to attend social events or even small family gatherings.  The sight of whole, together families overwhelms and may even anger you.  You are self-conscious and feel as if you no longer belong in this “normal” world.  You long for understanding and acceptance.  You may have exhausted all known resources for comfort and long to find someone who understands.  You may not have the will or the energy to seek out a therapist or support group.  One of the first and most important sources of solace I found was available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I didn’t have to leave my home.  I discovered that there are groups of bereaved parents who join together online and hold each other up every day, at all hours of the day and night.  Yes, they will be strangers at first, but each and every one of them shares your burden of pain and are ready to welcome you with open arms.  Some communicate in chat rooms and others use e-mail.  All you need is basic internet and an e-mail address to join these groups of grieving parents.  There are e-mail support groups and/or chat rooms for all types of losses.  You may join and not post a message for a long time.  You can just read messages from other participants and find comfort in knowing you are really not alone.  When you are ready, you can jump in and you will be welcomed with open arms.  There are always new members, along with those who have been on the journey for months or even years.  Everyone is relieved to finally find a safe place to come to pour out their innermost pain and suffering without being judged, analyzed, or preached to.  The other members will never grow tired of talking about their losses or listening to you talk about yours.

I don’t know if I could have survived without my fellow travelers on the web.  On a site called Griefnet ( I found an e-mail group created specifically for parents who had lost adult children.  GriefNet has over 30 groups for specific types of losses.  We did not have to make an appointment to talk to each other.  We did not have to drive anywhere.  We were there for each other 24 hours a day 7 days a week. We supported each other through holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.  We shared stories of our children and the endless pain of their loss.  We encouraged each other, uplifted each other, honored each other’s children, and someone was always there when another member needed help.  We were women and sometimes men from all different walks of life and from all over the world.  Our pain was universal.  It is amazing how comforting a cyber hug can be.  It looks like this ((( ))).  Some post e-mails often and some just read the messages and take comfort from them.  One mother maintained a list of the children, their birth and death dates, and where they lived.  Some individuals bonded and corresponded outside the group.  Some found that they lived near each other and met in person.

All of the staff at Griefnet have lost a loved one.  The groups are constantly monitored to keep out anyone who doesn’t belong and anyone who threatens any member of the group in any way.  It is an absolutely safe place to meet people who are where you are.  In addition to easing my pain, reaching out to others to ease their pain strengthened me.  Those whose loss is raw and new are welcomed by others who have been traveling the road a while longer.  Those who have been in the group longer share their stories of hope and inspire the newcomers to hang on and take it a day at a time.  One mother wrote:

Last night I had a nervous breakdown. I was in the black pit of despair. I’m still in the pit, but what hit me was that here I was, at my very lowest, almost ready to call it quits but there were these hands reaching out & hugging me from all over the world. Hands belonging to people just like me, struggling with their own pits & they were able to reach up out of their pits & hold me up. But yet those who were not grieving & were having a wonderful, happy life were the ones that pushed me over the edge & did not reach out to help. Those people in the pits were you, all of you. They don’t have any idea how hard & how much STRENGTH it took for you all to do that. I thank you. I know where to find true friends because true friends, no matter how low they are themselves, are still able to help a fellow friend out. I think we need to rethink the phrase “the blind leading the blind”. Would it not make sense that a fellow blind person would know how to help another blind person better than someone who was not?

The group I belonged to can be found at

There are other websites, chat rooms, message boards and a library of resources for grieving parents where those with specific losses can get together and share the pain.

There is an organization for military families called TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program) at where you will find numerous resources for grieving military family members.  TAPS presents a seminar every Memorial Day weekend where military families join together to support each other.  Kids who have lost parents or siblings attend Good Grief Camp on the same weekend.  Peer mentors hold the hands of newly grieving family members through phone calls, email, and sometimes in person  all throughout the year.  If you have lost a child in the military, there is no better or more understanding group than TAPS.

There is a site at, which offers excellent advice on many subjects, including a variety of responses to the insensitive questions, or comments people will make to you.  The one question that still throws me is, “how many children do you have.” It’s an innocent question that is extraordinarily painful to answer truthfully.  In the beginning I just included Dave and said, “I have three.”  After a while, depending on who was asking, I was able to say out loud that I lost a son.

This site also has a chat room and links to other grief-related sites.

Compassionate Friends is another organization created to support those who have lost a child.  They have chapters all over the country where you can attend regular meetings with other bereaved parents.  They also have a chat room with chatson various subjects on different nights of the week.  They have a special chat room specifically for families who have lost loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan.  They can be found at  Many of the grief websites offer a place to memorialize and pay tribute to your child with pictures and stories.

Chapter 3: Pain Relievers


Writing may be a way to ease the pain.  On sleepless nights, when nothing else worked, I wrote in a journal.  I poured out my despair, horror, anger, jealousy and fear – all of the hurt and pain in my heart.  Page after page, it helped to get it all out.  I wrote poetry late at night, watching the moon through the window. I asked why over and over.  I wrote to David.  I told him how much I love him.  I told him how we all love him and miss him.  I wrote down all of the things I couldn’t say to anyone.

A grieving mother in my email group poured her heart out in beautiful poetry.  Another almost never sent messages but wrote short powerful verses to communicate with us.  Poetry expressed the feelings they could not put in ordinary words.  I started writing this book about two years after 9/11.

Writing down memories of your child helps you, and if there are grandchildren, will be a wonderful treasure for them someday.

Music, Candles, Poems

Soothing music and candles are at least a distraction and at best a source of solace. Somehow the light and warmth and symbolism help a bit.  Lighting candles is a popular way for bereaved parents to honor each other’s children on their birthdays and on the anniversaries of their deaths (called angel dates).  I listened to music with no words, only soothing, rippling, peaceful music.  I never listened to sad songs or songs to remind me of Dave in the beginning, they were just too painful.


Reading might be helpful too.  I didn’t read anything that might remind me of what happened to Dave.  Over the years I have found that there is no getting away from September 11.  It’s a rare day that goes by, even eleven years later, that there isn’t something in the media or somewhere in the public domain about September 11.  Even on a PBS show about songbirds they featured a woman who had lost her husband on that day.  Sometimes it’s very hard to escape the reminders.

Back then, I mostly read a lot of poetry and worked crossword puzzles like a mad woman.


Scrapbooking is another source of comfort for you and your family, and a way to be busy and feel useful.  My daughter, Becky, made me a precious “Dave” scrapbook that I treasure, and will pass on to his children.  Some grieving parents put up websites to honor their children.  There are free services online to help you get started.   A memorial garden is another way to honor them, and also have a spot to sit for quiet reflection.  I know a woman who made memorial quilts for victims of 9/11’s families.  Any way you can find to remember and pay tribute to your child will help you find some comfort too.

Physical Activity

I didn’t want to leave home for a long time after David died, but eventually I had to get away from the house.  I had been a ballroom dancer before September 11, and at some point I turned to dance to ease the pain.  For three hours a week the music and movement eased the pain for short periods of time.  Some of my online friends played racquetball, worked in the garden, walked, ran, cycled, swam, anything to get up and get moving again. It is a huge step.


Your child’s friends can be an amazing comfort and source of stories and anecdotes about aspects of your child you never knew.  Dave’s friends and shipmates were always ready to share stories with me.  I learned about Dave the clown and Dave the respected and loved naval officer.  A friend and co-worker of his who survived the attack on the Pentagon offered to tell me everything that happened that day.  I’ve never had the courage to take him up on the offer.  He was severely burned, and in spite of his condition, insisted on attending Dave’s memorial service.

Talk to Your Child

I visited my daughter in California in November of 2001.  I was numb with pain and the knowledge that I would never hear David’s voice again, never see him, hug him, or talk to him again in this world.  I drove to the beach and sat on a log staring out to sea.  I talked to David and asked him why this had happened.  I felt an answer in my heart, “it’s complicated mom.” Then I heard, “don’t hate anybody.”  I could visualize him in a navy blue windbreaker he wore to play golf and some khaki shorts.  I really felt him there with me.  On my way down the beach to the car I found a red heart-shaped rock that fit perfectly into my hand.  I took it with me and carried it everywhere I went for months. Every time I feel far from David I hold it tight.  It helped to hold onto something I felt he had put in my path.  He wasn’t gone; he was still with me.

A mother I met who lost her daughter on one of the planes, used to sit in her daughter’s room and talk to her.  Finally, one day a music box in the room began to play.  Miriam just wanted a sign.  Sometimes I think our lost children speak to our hearts if we listen really hard.

Chapter 4: Why?

pentagon2This is a question that will not be answered this side of heaven.  I have always prayed every day for the safety of my family.  I prayed specifically for my children to be safe and well.  On September 11 when I heard a plane had hit the Pentagon I was barely worried.  Nothing could happen to David.  He would be safe.  As the day dragged on I began to pray.  Late in the afternoon and into the early evening I began begging. I screamed and cried and pleaded as the feeling of dread grew.  For days I held out hope and pleaded, begged and bargained with God to bring my son home safely.

No one, whether they believe in God or not, can understand why terrible things happen.  Why do good people die and evil people live and prosper?  We parents whose children have left this world can drive ourselves insane with this question.  We want answers.  We demand answers.  I have slowly come to accept that I will not know why my son died while I am still alive.  For some reason it was his time.  I’ve gone over and over for years and years all of the things I might have done differently to keep him from being in that place at that time, but he was there, and someday I will understand why.

Still the question gnaws at us:  If God is so familiar with the horror of human suffering, why doesn’t he spare us from having to go through it?

I was so angry at God after David died.  I felt like he had abandoned me.  I wondered if it was payback for something I had done.  I wanted my son back.  I wanted to see the grin that lit up his face, and rub my hand over his bristly short Navy haircut.  I wanted him to watch his son and daughters grow up.  I wanted him to walk the girls down the aisle someday and play basketball with his boy.  I saw nothing but pain and agony and evil in what had happened.  I didn’t know back then that Jesus was right by my side the whole time.

And yet, according to Scripture, grief gives us a heart of wisdom – it deposits a spiritual and emotional understanding that is not found on the outskirts of human existence, but at the very center of what it really means to be alive.

Deeper Still, Phil Ginsburg

Losing my son has been the most painful heartbreaking time of my life.  I’ll never be the same.  I’ll never get over it.  I’ll miss him every day until I die.  Yet somehow, someway, this tragedy has brought me closer to God and to the universe.  I physically feel the pain of parents who lose their children.  I am able to comfort those who suffer instead of running away in fear that their sorrow will rub off on me.  I’ve gone deeper into this life and have begun to understand how temporary and insignificant our earthly pursuits and struggles can be.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Chapter 5: Ups and Downs and Paralysis

For weeks after 9-11 I could not face the ordinary responsibilities that nagged and tore at me every day.  Dog and cat hair built up on the carpets.  Laundry piled up in baskets.  Dust settled, cobwebs formed, sticky stuff clung to the kitchen floor.  As one wise grieving mom put it, “don’t worry about it, the health inspector rarely ever visits a grief house.” In those first weeks bills went unpaid, grass grew, and the refrigerator emptied.  Let it be.  Do what you need to do for yourself.  Little by little you will begin to function.  Don’t rush it, don’t feel guilty, don’t worry about it.  Don’t feel obligated to respond to well-meaning friends and family who urge you to get up, get out, live again.  At some point you may be told it is time to move on, or you’ve shed enough tears, or your child is in a better place.  You feel dead, wish you were dead, and even pray to be dead.

When you venture out in public for the first time you may feel anxious and afraid. You may break down when you see children the age of your lost child. You may resent or even feel hate for happy, together, whole, families.  So many people and places and things may remind you of what you’ve lost.  It’s scary and sad and the loneliest feeling in the world.  You long to go back to “normal,” and you know in your heart that “normal” as you knew it is gone forever.

In the early days, there’s no relief from the neverending relentless pain in your heart.  I know you don’t believe it now, but it will get better as time passes and you will, inch by inch, return to the living.  You will do it at your own pace in your own time. Be kind and gentle with yourself.  Grief knows no schedule or timetable.

As sure as the sun comes up every day you will experience wild ups and downs. An “up” for me was a feeling of near euphoria when, for a moment, I truly believed my son was at peace and still with me.  A “down” was lying on the bathroom floor feeling as hopeless as a lost soul stranded in a leaky rowboat, alone on a black stormy sea. There was no hiding from it or getting around it. All that saved me was the tiny sliver of light that was the hope that the worst would pass.  It would pass, and then it would come back and pass again – many times.

Chapter 6: Strained Relations

Grieving people are often urged to get on with their lives.  It is suggested that their loved one would not want them to suffer.  They are urged not to dwell on the pain.  They are assured that God “needed another angel.”  They are advised to appreciate the years they had with their loved one.  They are avoided by those who don’t know what to say and overwhelmed by those who think they know best.  Worst of all, to me, was being advised to seek “closure.”  Some well‑meaning friends or relatives may assume, after only six months or a year that you are “over it.”  You may feel afflicted by a highly contagious disease rather than a terrible loss. Some people really care and others feel an obligation to pretend that they care.  I have been asked, “how are you doing?” too many times by people who don’t really want to know.  You may be surprised to find out who your true friends are.  The ones you expected to stand with you may be nowhere in sight, while some who you barely noticed may be right by your side.

My only true comfort back then rested with others who had suffered the same loss. They were the only ones who understood.  For the rest of the world, I wore my “mask” and nodded and said, “fine thank you.”  To those who asked specific questions I may have shared a small grain of the truth.  The whole truth would have scared them away.  This is why support groups and email groups are such a lifeline.  There is a safe place to go with your grief where you will be accepted, encouraged to talk, and ultimately find comfort.

The loss of a child can bring spouses closer together, or it can drive a painful wedge between them.  Some mothers I have talked to say that their husbands hold in their grief and try to carry on as before.  Another grief-stricken dad I know pours out his heart to whoever will listen.  Since everyone on the face of the earth handles pain differently, there is no “right” way to feel or behave.  While grief is universal, it is also terribly individual.  Each of us must work through it in our own way and hope that we can find a kind soul, be it family, friend, or stranger, to hold our hand for the long run.  A mother from my griefnet group wrote a poem to the people in her life who would not allow her the time to grieve for the loss of her daughter.  She most often expressed her grief through poetry.


it can occur at any time

it does not have a routine


it comes into your heart

like a nor’ easter

creating havoc 
with your emotions.

I blubber 
I sob 
I cry

if you are offended 

go away

I do not need you 
in my life

you do not have to stay

and tell me

“get a grip”

“take your pills”

“pull yourself together”

my grief is deep 
my pain goes to the very bottom of my soul

and you do not help

or ease the hurt

when you say words that are cold

I just pull back

behind my wall

it is safer there

no one to tell me what to do 
or feel

I thought you understood

I was wrong

I will cry my tears alone

and not be criticized

I do not need you in my life

please go away

I need to cry….

by Judith Melanie Mershon (

I know of a woman who disowned her daughter-in-law, and thereby severed ties with her granddaughter, because her daughter-in-law remarried after the death of her son. Many parents have told me about the heartaches they’ve encountered in this area.  Strained relationships between parents and sons and daughters-in-law have piled tragedy upon tragedy on many families. Just as life was forever changed by the loss of your child, life will change again when their spouse remarries.  This does not have to be another tragedy.  Continue to love and respect your children’s spouses and welcome their new spouses into your family.  It’s not easy to see a stranger in the place of your son or daughter.  Grandchildren make life worth living again.  Don’t lose them too when their living parent remarries.  They have the right to remarry and go on living.  The bond between you and your grandchildren is priceless to you and them.  Whatever real or imagined hurts you believe have been committed against you by your child’s spouse must be let go, now.  Whether you are right or wrong is of no consequence.  Swallow your pride and embrace your child’s spouse and children.  Go first.  Life, as we know, can be too short.  No good ever comes from bitterness and pride.  Your heart may be aching, and love is the only way to begin to ease the pain.

Once again, it is good to be in the company of others who have walked in these shoes.  Their support, advice, and comfort is priceless.