Editor's note: This story is adapted from reporting for the podcast Sacred Ground by NPR's Scott Detrow and WITF's Tim Lambert.
Imagine losing a loved one and having to relive how they died over and over, year after year. Imagine repeatedly being asked how you feel and about your daughter, your father, your cousin, while reliving one of the worst moments of your life.
And imagine having to regularly do all that in televised ceremonies, with public officials milling and reporters looming.
For the families who lost so much in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, their grief has now been on public display for two decades.
Reporting on the aftermath of United Airlines Flight 93, we conducted extensive interviews with family members of passengers and crew who died when the plane crashed just outside Shanksville, Pa.
Every one of them has approached this overwhelming grief in a unique way.
Some have made peace with it. Some channeled it by going all in — doing everything they could to help build the Flight 93 National Memorial, or to keep their loved ones' stories alive. Others realized they needed to step away and have avoided that memorial for the good part of a decade. Some have had to struggle with it away from the spotlight. Some have quietly gone about rebuilding their lives.
20 years on, a husband is still working through his loss
Around the time Jack Grandcolas woke up that morning in California, his wife Lauren was in the final moments of her life. He had no idea that was the case. Due to an influx of telemarketers that had been calling the house, they had recently turned off the ringer on the phone in their bedroom.
So when Jack came downstairs, turned on the TV and saw the horrific images unfolding in New York City and elsewhere, he also saw he had two new answering machine messages.
The first: an update from Lauren, telling him she had booked a standby seat on an earlier nonstop flight from Newark back to their home in Northern California — United 93.
There was a second message, too. Jack stared at the TV as he listened.
Lauren was calling again. From the plane. It had been hijacked.
Honey, are you there? Jack? Pick up sweetie. OK, well I just wanted to tell you I love you. We're having a little problem on the plane. Umm. I'm totally fine. Umm. I just love you more than anything, just know that. And you know, I'm, you know, I'm not uncomfortable and I'm OK ... for now. Umm. It's just a little problem. So, I'll a ... I just love you. Please tell my family I love them too. Bye, honey.
Those first few months were just a numb blur for Jack. He was crushed with grief. He estimates he lost about 30 pounds.
When the numbness lifted, it didn't get any better. "Because after the shock wears off, the real pain sets in. That's the longing part," he said. "The first year is extremely painful." Every holiday and family milestone he went thorough solo brought the pain rushing back.
Going to Shanksville to visit the crash site — and what gradually became the memorial — had created a sense of healing and community for several Flight 93 families, but Jack realized it just wasn't doing that for him.
After about three visits, it was too much.
"The pain and the sorrow was more than was healthy." he said.
It was one of several steps Jack took over the years to manage that loss. A doctor told him he needed to find ways to start moving forward — not too fast, but also not getting bogged down and paralyzed by grief.
So as difficult as it was, Jack picked up a lot of Lauren's clothes and jewelry and donated them to a women's shelter.
He thought he had figured this out. He had moved forward through the depression. He had moved forward with his life.
But around 2014, he admitted things weren't all OK. "I was going down the tunnel of despair by self-medicating, because I was having these dreams and I didn't want to dream," he said. "I knew that wasn't going to be a healthy existence."
Jack started working through it with a therapist, who finally helped him figure out what was going on. He had come to terms with Lauren's death. But he had never processed his grief tied to the fact that Lauren was three months pregnant when Flight 93 crashed.
On the memorial's marble Wall of Names, her name is engraved in black, like the other passengers and crew members. But it also includes the inscription: "and unborn child."
"All I could think about year in and year out was, 'This child would have been 12 this year. What would they have been doing?'" he said.
Jack knew he had to square it away in his own way. He began to write down his thoughts and work through them. Eventually, the project turned into a book.
"So I began the forward with, 'Dear son ... or daughter ... I'm writing this to you on the advice of my therapist, to let you know a little bit about your mom and dad, and also what has transpired over the last 20 years.' " he said.
It's about Jack, about Lauren, about what happened on 9/11, and what Jack thinks Lauren was doing on the plane.
Jack — now remarried — vowed not to return to Shanksville until the memorial was complete. So, he'll be there this year — to mark 20 years since that horrible day unfolded and he pressed play on his answering machine.
Experiencing grief in reverse
Jody Greene is moving in the opposite direction. While Jack's memories of 9/11 are painful and visceral, hers are hazy.
"I think that it's kind of hard to discern what's a memory, versus something you kind of put together in your head" after hearing so many stories about it, she admitted.
That's because Jody was just 6 years old the day her father, 52-year-old Donald Greene, died on Flight 93. Jody has memories of him — most fondly, the times the two spent flying together in his small seaplane. But she doesn't remember much about 9/11, other than the stories family have told her so many times that they seem like they could be memories.
So for her, the past 20 years have been "a little bit of grieving backwards."
Those early anniversaries were overwhelming for adults whose spouses, siblings or cousins had died. So overwhelming that Jack Grandcolas eventually decided to stop attending.
In a young kid's eyes, though, they were big family gatherings, filled with lots of attention and greetings from important, famous people.
"I had a pretty fine time that first anniversary," Jody said. She specifically remembers hunting through a pile of mulch at the crash site, looking for colorful wires. The mulch was the chopped up remains of hemlocks burned by the crash's explosion. And the wires were parts of the plane.
But for two little kids, the hunt was a fun and welcome distraction. Jody and her brother brought the wires back to show their mother. "I can only imagine what was going on in her head," she said. "But to us, it was just this, this fun game that we were playing."
As Jody grew older, she began to understand more and more of what happened. She Googled. She watched the movie about Flight 93.
She also began to comprehend what those basic facts meant. That her father had died in a terrible, violent way. And that his death was an important moment in an overwhelming, world-changing national tragedy.
"I think for me, at least, the 10 year anniversary was maybe the hardest," Jody said. The most like what she imagined adults felt in 2002, or one of the other early anniversaries, "because I was fully cognizant of what was going on. And there was that media attention, and there was so much happening. And additionally, I understood the full impact."
Now, at 26, Jody says she's "in a place where many people were maybe at the 10 year anniversary," where a visit to Shanksville can be peaceful and reflective, rather than overwhelming.
"It's the first anniversary where I have felt like I have it together enough to talk to [the media], and to write an op-ed, and to feel like I am in a place where I can productively contribute to the narrative," she said.
Jody has decided to become more actively involved in telling Flight 93's story in recent years. She's joined the board of a foundation that works to keep its memory alive for future generations.
In that sense, she's filling a space being vacated by the first wave of family members who channeled their own grief into doing everything they could to get the memorial built.
Taking charge of the memorial
Debby Borza went as far as to move across the country, from California to the East Coast, so that she'd be closer to Shanksville.
Closer to the final resting place of her daughter, Deora Bodley.
Closer to a place she struggled to square with her hopes to grieve in private.
"I started out as, 'Listen. Let's just put a 12-foot high electrical fence around the crash site. Just make it available to me and family members, and the rest of y'all — you can just go home,' " she said.
But Debby eventually realized the story of Deora would then end with her.
So, she started to let herself think about how the National Park Service would handle telling the world about her oldest daughter
It was the story of the college student who was working on a double major, who hoped to work with children, who would walk in a room and be noticed, who always said hello and goodbye.
It was a difficult personal journey, since the grief of the families of the passengers and crew couldn't really be private.
"To give up my daughter to the public, to turn her life over to people who never really knew her? They can never say, 'I was her mother.' Only I get to say that," she told WITF in 2016. "That's what I hold dear. The rest of Deora, I now gladly give her away to anybody and everybody who's interested."
As for the site itself, Debby found herself going back to a vow she made to herself that day in September — to be courageous and loving.
The memorial is like her second home. She has lived and breathed this place for 20 years. Now when she visits, she sits back and watches. Sometimes, she strikes up a conversation with a random visitor and tells her story.
"I would let them know that my daughter was on board Flight 93 and then they get a little quiet," she said. "I try to put them at ease and share the importance of what this site is for me."
From looking at all the license plates in the parking lot, to greeting the volunteer ambassadors, it seems like nothing escapes her attention.
After all these years of paying attention to the smallest details, Debby considers herself one of the owners of the Flight 93 National Memorial.
"When I step onto this park now, I let them know I'm here and, you know, the boss is back checking in on us," she said with a wide grin.
Smiling and always positive, she recently moved back to Southern California. It was time to start stepping away from this place.
But she's still trying to process 20 years. She says what's so strange is that from this point forward, Deora will have been gone longer than she was alive.
Debby can't help but imagine what the past two decades would have been like for her daughter. Deora would have turned 40 this year.
Closure isn't expected
Over and over again, especially in the early years, people close to Flight 93 talked about the 20th anniversary as a capstone — a potential cathartic endpoint to the story of the plane crash, and the cleanup of the land, and the push to build a memorial, and everything else.
But the loss still simmers beneath the surface for some and every Sept. 11 remembrance can feel like a funeral.
That's how Ben Wainio and his wife, Esther Heymann, describe it. Their daughter, Honor Elizabeth, just 27, had called Esther from the doomed flight.
"I wish I could sit down and not talk about it more than 20 years from now," Ben told WITF at one point in the early years after 9/11.
Ben initially agreed to an interview. But after a few days, he changed his mind. It was just too much.
"It gets difficult to relive how that day ended," he explained. "It's never difficult to talk about Elizabeth, because I love her and I miss her so much. But it just gets me emotional."
Ben and the other family members aren't looking for closure, because they know it will never come. For the last 20 years, they have tried to find a place for their grief, while holding the memory of their loved ones close.
Somerset County coroner Wallace Miller, who was responsible for collecting, identifying and returning the remains of the Flight 93 passengers and crew to the families, has a unique perspective about grief. Along with having to contact next-of-kin to notify them of a death, he ran a funeral home business.
Wally guided the Flight 93 families through the early months and years after the crash — holding an unprecedented meeting for them in early 2002 and urging them to form a group to speak as one voice.
In 2006, as he walked the crash site, he shared an insight about closure that's informed through decades of dealing with death and grief.
"I believe that when somebody that you love passes away, there's going to be a hole in your life that you're not going to be able to fill," he said. "Because that person filled that niche, the key to living a successful life, to me, would be learning how to bridge that gap or how to work your life around that to still honor it, but yet move on. Because you have to, and they'd want you to."
"I think your challenge as a funeral director is to be able to make people understand that it's okay to deal with everything in their own way," he added. "There isn't a right or wrong way. There's your way."
Ben Wainio and Esther Heymann will be in Shanksville on Saturday — even though they both dread how it may feel like another funeral for their daughter.
They'll be there because they know they'll be surrounded by others — like Jack Grandcolas, Jody Greene and Debby Borza — whose loved ones lost their lives in that field 20 years ago.
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