Sometimes our own grief is hard to understand.
I’ve moved homes six times in the past 16 years. Each time, along with my furniture, my clothes, and my books, I’ve also packed up a large, heavy cardboard box that sits in the back of my closet, transported it to my new home, and set it carefully in the back of my new closet. I have almost never opened it between moves. It takes up space that I could really use for something else. I don’t look at it. But I know it’s there.
It is my memorial to September 11.
That’s not how I thought of it when I first packed it. The label on the side of the box just reads “News Archive,” and it is indeed packed solidly full of newspapers and magazines. Despite the generic label, though, it’s a very specific pile of news, all of it from and about a very particular moment in history: September 11, 2001, and the days and weeks that followed.
Why? Why have I been lugging a 40-pound box of newsprint around for two-thirds of my adult life? Why do I need a memorial to September 11?
I’ve resisted answering this for a long time. When people would ask, I would stare at them wordlessly. The urge to keep those newspapers always felt so primal, so deep-seated, that I found myself feeling angry to have it questioned. But it’s 16 years later now, and I’ve been trying to practice purging and renewal in my life, and I have a girlfriend who’s really good at gently wondering things out loud. So, on the eve of September 11, 2017, I took a deep breath and opened the box and, for the first time, posed the question to myself.
As soon as I did, I realized that, of course, the answer is that I was grieving. And I hadn’t wanted to admit it.
I didn’t personally know anyone who died in the terrorist attacks that day. I didn’t and don’t have any special right to mourn September 11. But I was a young, passionately devoted journalist, four years deep into an editorship at a service-minded local newsweekly in Pittsburgh — where the crash of Flight 93 in nearby Somerset County meant that, on that unforgettable Tuesday morning, my whole life immediately recalibrated to focus on making sense of this terrible violence and how Americans would move forward from it.
Then, two weeks later, just as abruptly, the newspaper where I worked was bought out by a competitor and shut down. My new full-time mission to help process the nation’s existential crisis was over before I’d had a chance to do much more than get started.
Looking back now, from the age of 42, it’s easy to see what I wasn’t prepared to recognize back in that moment, at 26: My grief over losing the opportunity to serve my community in that job, which had so thoroughly encompassed my sense of self, was completely intertwined with my experience of the national grief over the devastation of September 11.
In collecting all those newspapers that my peers were producing each day through the rest of 2001 and into 2002, I was trying to hold onto the version of my life that had so suddenly ended, in a quick one-two punch — first when al-Qaeda’s attack permanently changed the experience of living as an American, and then when my newspaper’s closing permanently changed the experience of being me.
I told myself that I was holding onto those months’ worth of papers — issues of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Tribune-Review, the New York Times, the Washington Post — for the sake of historical perspective, so I’d be able to remember precisely how our country’s priorities shifted so rapidly. But by the time a few years had passed, that explanation wasn’t really true: Those stories were searchable online in moments, so there was no practical reason to keep the hard copies just in case I ever might want to refer to the information in them.
Without realizing it, I was keeping them for a much more visceral reason: because they represented the fact that my whole world had changed. Quietly, like a talisman, they reminded me that life had been different once, in the Before.
That’s what grief is, isn’t it? That painful tangle of reactions to loss.
I held onto the artifacts of September 11 because I was afraid of forgetting what life used to feel like.
That’s the fundamental reason we construct memorials: Never forget. That’s why we place gravestones in cemeteries; it’s why we keep ashes in urns; it’s why it’s so hard to dispose of a loved one’s clothes after they die.
For that matter, it’s also why there’s so much fury right now over the fate of Civil War monuments: because the same historical events, the same historical figures, don’t mean the same thing to everyone. And, like me with my closet-buried September 11 memorial, I suspect a lot of the people who feel strongly about keeping those monuments haven’t thought through the question of what it really is they’re trying so desperately to hold onto.
Today, I decided that 16 years is long enough to have carried around such a heavy box. Now that I understand better what I actually cared about, I’m going to clip a few headlines that remind me of the history that’s important to remember, and I’m going to do my best to let go of the rest.
I’ll never forget September 11. But I don’t need to make the trappings of remembrance more important than the memories themselves — and the healing that can come with facing what they mean.
Stephen Segal is Legacy.com’s senior editor.