The Vocabulary of Grief

Twenty years after 9/11, we still don’t know how to talk about death

Abigail Carter

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The author and her daughter at the birdbath party, 2003 (photo: Abigail Carter)

Twenty years is a long time to grieve. In those early years after the buildings collapsed on 9/11 taking my husband, Caleb Arron Dack, along with 2,995 others, I couldn’t imagine what my life without him might look like in twenty years. It seemed an unfathomable amount of time. I had to get down to the business at hand —raise two small children while mourning Arron in a way that I felt “honored him.” Those were the words that kept creeping into my brain: you must find a way to properly honor him.

The problem was, as a 35-year-old new widow with a two, and six-year-old, I barely had a vocabulary for “honoring” or “mourning” or even “grieving” him, let alone a methodology. I was surprised to learn I was meant to “celebrate” his life. I was not in a very celebratory mood. And so I did what all good 9/11 widows did — I attended public memorials. The city of New York, the state of New Jersey, the town of Montclair. I sat through countless tear-jerky renditions of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes and the ringing of too many fire bells. The firefighters had the mourning thing down, and I derived unexpected comfort from the consistency of those bagpipes and bells.

The first anniversary

At the memorial on the first anniversary of September 11th that took place beside the remains of the World Trade Center, I flocked with thousands of other families, dismayed that I hadn’t thought to emblazon my husband’s face on a series of t-shirts to be worn by all my family members. How did I not know I was supposed to create a t-shirt? Granted, only my mother-in-law and I made the trek because the rest of my family were back in Canada. Huge public memorials were not really their thing. They weren’t really our thing either, but it felt important to be there somehow, to hear Arron’s name read for the first time. We waited for what seemed hours, shoulder to shoulder with other tearful family members, hiding from TV cameras and photographers that seemed determined to catch every tear for national consumption. Finally, the name readers reached the letter D. We held our breath as Arron’s name was read… except instead of reading the name “Caleb Arron Dack,” the young man read the name “Caleb Arron Back.” Was he…

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Abigail Carter

Writing about widowhood, parenting, life, grief, art, writing and publishing. #singlemom #author #memoirist #writer #widow #9/11widow #artist