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Grief's meandering path rarely has clear markers

Even though Osama bin Laden has been killed, those of us who know about grieving also know that the families of those lost to his terrorism may experience little comfort or closure.

May 03, 2011|Sandy Banks

Seventeen years in, the pain has receded and the memories softened. Life is good; laughter is easy. I am, after all, well beyond the recovery period on the timeline of grief that survivors are supposed to follow.

But there I was on Sunday, wearing my late husband's face on my back, walking a sunny stretch of West Los Angeles with hundreds of strangers who, like me, were celebrating loved ones' lives and mourning their deaths.

It was the annual "Run for Hope," sponsored by Our House, a grief support program. I was invited to join the memorial run after I wrote a column about the death of my mother-in-law, Rene, in March.

"Running in memory of Rene, with her photo scanned on the back of your own personalized T-shirt, can help as you begin to heal," promised Lauren Schneider, a clinical director at Our House.

If only healing were that simple, I thought. Never mind recovering from this latest loss; I'm still trying to make my peace with the 1993 death of Rene's son, my husband and the father of my three daughters, now grown.

So I decided to put his face on my shirt. I figured I wouldn't have to explain to this bunch the enduring power of missing someone.

::

It was like looking into a mirror when I saw her, a weary-looking woman in sneakers and shorts, wearing a T-shirt with her late husband's photo, surrounded by four children who looked like they'd rather be anywhere else.

She had one T-shirt draped across her arm. I knew even before she told me: The shirt belonged to her daughter, who just didn't feel like putting it on.

I still remember my 8-year-old's response to the sudden news that her father had died. "It's not true!" she cried. "Then I'll be the only one in my class without a dad."

Children tend to be angry and embarrassed when a parent dies. The literature on grief tells us that. They may be frightened and bewildered. They feel subconsciously abandoned, isolated from their peers, afraid or ashamed to talk about it.

Well, so do adults. But we're not allowed to wallow in that.

That's what makes Our House so important. It offers a place where people of every age can feel normal talking about familial loss. Because for all our public memorializing — the shrines, the T-shirts, the over-the-top funeral services — grief in this country is still a solitary process.

After the flowers die, the meals stop coming, the friends move on, death leaves a hole that can't be papered over; a loss that's absorbed but never undone.

Schneider was right. It does help the healing to feel like part of a family in which everybody is missing someone.

The labels on their T-shirts testified to the network of relationships that death has tested, unraveled, refashioned, strengthened.

I'm walking in memory of my son, my soul-mate, my brother, my friend, my mother, my nana, my teacher, my stepson's dad.

On display were friendships built and bonded by loss: the trio of young widows who laughed as they jogged, the mismatched group of teenage girls who had little in common except the deaths of their fathers.

There were reminders that life goes on, including the picture of baby Nadine, fists clenched, eyes closed, breathing tube taped to her nose. Her parents strapped her brother into his stroller, steadied her sister on her bike and headed off in honor of the infant they had lost.

And there were families toting grief so fresh that it unleashed others' long-buried memories.

Like the group that streamed to the center of the "memory circle" to tell us about Zeghie Kiflezghie. She was a mother of nine children, from Eritrea, who endured a 13-day camel ride through the Sudanese desert to make her way to America. She was killed crossing a street in Carson in 2009.

"She was 61," her daughter told me. "And she had everything to live for."

They came because "we just wanted to share her memory. We wanted to say her name aloud" — in a group of strangers — "so that everybody here would know about her. About what a wonderful mother she was."

I promised I'd mention her mother's name. She cried, nodded her thanks, and put her hand to her heart.

::

There is power in our collective acknowledgement of private loss.

President Obama seemed to understand that Sunday night, when he announced the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

He opened and closed his televised speech by acknowledging not just our nation's pain but also the personal toll of the terrorist attacks. His references to those who lost friends and family members on a beautiful September day nearly 10 years ago made it clear that personal pain is central to our collective outrage.

Visions of 9/11 "are seared into our national memory," he said. "But the worst images are those that are unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child's embrace."

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