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The Particular Griefs of September 11Perhaps it is that relationship between the particular and public nature of grief that our experience brings to bear upon the historic events of September 11th.

Ten years ago today, I was with my mother-in-law as she died. I watched her fight. And I watched the life leave her body.  Afterwards, the scent of lilies and lavender. A clear blue sky. A sense, if not of relief, then at least of finality. It took a long time for me to cry.

Two year earlier, our country experienced a far more public and horrific reason to grieve when four hijacked airplanes crashed, killing all aboard, causing significant damage to the Pentagon and the destruction of the World Trade Center.

The two events have almost nothing in common. My mother-in-law died of liver cancer in her home in New Orleans, surrounded by loved ones. She had taken the time to say goodbye, to ask forgiveness, to offer forgiveness, and to make sure her friends and family knew of her love for them. I took a walk a few hours before she died. A flag hung at half mast. And I knew it hung there in recognition of the lives lost two years earlier, but for a moment it felt as though our particular grief had been recognized publicly. I had a passing sense of relief to think I wouldn't need to explain why I was distracted, or crying, or unable to return a phone call. I didn't expect people to share my sadness. But it was nice to think they might acknowledge it, begin to understand it.

I will never come to September 11th without thinking of the particularities of Grand Penny's death and, at the same time, without thinking about those towers falling to the ground.

The events of twelve years ago changed world history. The shockwaves rippled through politics and economics and social norms and, of course, our approach to military action against our enemies. But much as those events affected us all on a global level, today we remember the fact that those planes carried individuals. The people inside those towers and the Pentagon and the rescue workers who lost their lives that morning, each and every one of them has as particular a story as my mother-in-law's. They each had their particular loves, their particular losses. In the months following September 11, 2001, the New York Times ran obituaries for every one of the deaths reported in relation to the terrorist acts that day. They gave faces and stories to the thousands who lost their lives. Today, one of our tasks is to continue to remember them as mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and daughters and sons, as ones with particular stories, and not just to remember the moment that precipitated a decade of war and economic turmoil.

Our youngest daughter, Marilee, is starting to understand what it means to be a family and how it is that we all connect to one another. Last week she asked, "Who Daddy's mommy?"

I said, "Grand Penny."

"Where is she?"

"She's in heaven with God."

She looked up at me, her round face holding its most serious expression, and said, "And we are sad? And she is sad?"

I swallowed hard when I answered, "Well she's sad not to know you, but she's happy to be with God."

She leaned against me, "And Jesus makes her not feel sad?"

I stroked her hair and murmured, "Yes, sweetheart. Yes."

Today we remember a horrific national calamity, an act of terrorist aggression that changed the world. We also remember the men and women and children who lost their lives. And in our family, we remember Grand Penny. We are sad. And yet we are also filled with gratitude, and hope, that one day all the particular tears will be wiped away. That Jesus will make us all not feel sad anymore.

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