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Opinion | Growing With Grief in the Shadow of Sept. 11

On the big anniversaries I would read special editions of the newspapers. I got a sense of what had happened at the site I had been to so many times, and also got to feel the deep loss and pain of the day through the writings of people that had lived through it and remembered it. I’ll never forget reading through the online tribute pages where loved ones and strangers wrote their messages for my mother years before. I looked at old photos of her and learned more about her life; I got to see her as Jill Maurer-Campbell, the childhood dancer, world traveler and caring, loving person. My family and this tragedy were intertwined.

On Sept. 11, 2014, I received hard news. My grandfather, retired Fire Department Capt. Joseph Maurer, had been battling esophageal cancer, which was caused by his trips to Lower Manhattan after the attacks. While retired, he ventured down to the site multiple times with his old pals to search for his lost daughter and Fire Department brothers, and to help in any way he could.

Seven months into his fight he had begun losing a lot of weight. That morning, he’d gone to the doctor, who told him that his cancer was terminal. After my grandmother told me the news, I looked into the living room and saw that one couch was missing. A man was putting together a hospital bed. My grandfather sat on a box nearby, his head in his hands. I had a semi-normal life before with a supporting and loving family. Now Sept. 11 was back for someone else.

He died just five days later. That is the first time I struggled emotionally with what had happened. I developed insomnia and depression. I felt as if life was ugly and that I couldn’t really deal with it. Missing my grandpa made me finally realize how much I had missed with my mom.

In the past year or so, since I started college, I forced myself to come face to face with what happened. I watched “9/11,” the documentary made by Jules and Gédéon Naudet. I read more books, like “The Only Plane in the Sky,” Garrett M. Graff’s oral history of the attacks, which a friend gave me an early copy of. I didn’t hold back from seeing the event as it was. Watching footage from that day and knowing that my mom was inside the building was gut wrenching, but it helped me face reality, and my emotions. I also saw the heroism of so many people.

Remarkably, I even go to know one of these heroes. In 2018, during my first semester in college, I read “The Operator,” the memoir in which Rob O’Neill, a member of SEAL Team Six, writes that he fired the shots that killed bin Laden. I was so moved that I sent an email to the author, not necessarily expecting a response. He wrote back and invited me to spend time with him while he was in Detroit for a talk about his book. One day in December, after I took a final exam, I went to Detroit. I stood on line to get my paperback copy of “The Operator” signed. As I waited, I remembered that night in fifth grade and the looks on my family members’ faces.

For most people, he signed his name on a blank page. But after I told him who I was, he wrote underneath his signature: “To the victims of 9/11 …. in memory of you that I fought.”

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