Watch CNN’s “Shine A Light,” a commercial-free 9/11 20th anniversary tribute, hosted by Jake Tapper and featuring musical performances by Maroon 5, H.E.R., Brad Paisley, and Common on Saturday, September 11 at 8 p.m. ET.
Somehow, the day still sneaks up on him each year, catching him unprepared so that he sometimes winds up driving around directionless until he can decide on the best place to take his annual solo hike.
Crawford, a construction supervisor, was 24 when he lost his dad. Robert J. Crawford, father of five and grandfather of six, died at 62 doing the job “that he absolutely loved” for 32 years: serving as a New York City firefighter. (There are now five more grandkids the elder Crawford never met.)
Robert J. Crawford had been scheduled to retire in November 2001, at age 63, the FDNY limit. Instead, his remains were found with six civilians in what had once been a stairwell at the World Trade Center.
Public vs. private mourning
The only year that Matt Crawford skipped his yearly hike was in 2005, when he joined his family on a trip to the White House to receive a 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor on his father’s behalf. Otherwise, he prefers to avoid the pomp and pageantry of September 11 commemorations in favor of quiet conversation with his dad in nature.
“That everyone can recognize the day this horrible event took place, it gives you comfort,” Crawford explained. But it also cuts both ways. The “commercialization” bothers him. Even the term 9/11 “tweaks me a little bit because of the gravity of that day,” he said. “It has to have a catchphrase? We can say September 11. We can use those extra syllables.”
Although he was never much of an “anniversaries person,” steering clear of public recognition of the date helps shield Crawford from its relative absence during off years. He had noticed that when the, say, 14th or the 19th anniversaries came around, they garnered significantly less attention. “Every day for me is September 11 because every day I wake up, my father’s not here.”
Singular events like those on September 11 continue to draw our attention, but the relentlessness of high death counts day after day can leave people numb. What could possibly contain the pain of a nation, a world, confronting so many losses of all kinds?
The healing power of commemorations
These rituals exist because we need them. Shared commemorations remind us that we are not alone in our loss.
In the days and weeks that followed September 11, 2001, people across the country and the globe came together to mourn, finding solace in connection and community. Since then, annual commemorations, with their candles, readings of names, bells chiming, and moments of silence, have provided opportunities for people to seek solace with others. Yet, unlike the 9/11 attacks that ruptured the fabric of American society in an instant on a single day, there is no singular date that signifies the beginning — or will signify the end — of the pandemic.
“We will need to come up with some anniversaries that we can move through collectively,” Smith said. “We also need to give people permission to honor their own individual anniversaries — of when they lost someone, lost their job, canceled a wedding, or their children’s school closed. Giving people permission to mourn all those things is important.”
Most importantly, experts like Smith advise, allow the full range of emotions that often surface in connection with grief.
Whether the anniversary of your loss is shared, like that of September 11, or more singular, it can help to remember that grief is a universal human experience. Recognizing that universality as just one example of our interconnectedness and interdependence can help us more mindfully knit together a sense of community.
Ask people you care about what they are doing to honor their losses, both individual and collective. Even if you must remain apart physically, sharing a ritual can bring about a sense of togetherness.
While he’s off hiking to find uninterrupted reconnection with his father, Matt Crawford calls to mind other people’s losses. “I always wonder when somebody has lost their mother, their father, their son or their daughter, and that day just goes by wordlessly with no comfort for them,” he said. “The catchphrase and the commercialization may cut me in a way that I don’t like, but at least there are moments of silence to pay homage.
“For a lot of other people, with this Covid pandemic, that recognition isn’t there,” Crawford said. “It must be even more lonely for them.”
Expanding our existing circles to acknowledge everyone who is hurting might just leave us all feeling much less lonely.
Jessica DuLong served as a marine engineer aboard the retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, where she helped pump river water to firefighters at the World Trade Center after the September 11 attacks. A Brooklyn-based journalist and book collaborator, she’s the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America.” She recently appeared in Spike Lee’s HBO docu-series NYC EPICENTERS 9/11➔2021½.