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The Circles of Loss

The World Trade Center tragedy united the city, but it has divided us, too -- into those who've lost family and friends, and those who only watched.


In memoriam: Tompkins Square Park, September 13, 2001.  

Last Monday, Alan Jaffe, the managing partner of Proskauer Rose, gave a speech to the partners of his law firm, which he later circulated to the entire office. He quoted extensively from the Times and spoke rousingly of how the firm had a moral obligation to carryon in the wake of the September 11 devastation. Then he got down to brass tacks.

"For four days, we have been virtually paralyzed in shock and grief over Tuesday's events," he said in the message, sent by e-mail. "It was appropriate then -- not now, not in the workplace. We must get back to the practice of law and to our business. We must do this with sensitivity and compassion to each other, to our employees, and to our clients, but we must, nevertheless, get back to work."

The counselor makes a good case. But there is another: Arguably, the week of September 11 wasn't about grief nearly as much as it was about disbelief, fear, outrage, and denial. Arguably, this city's grieving has only just begun. And it's already like nothing we've ever seen: idiosyncratic, improvisational, sentimental in ways that would have embarrassed us just a few weeks ago.

It's right there in the fliers plastered all over town, from subway stations to signposts. By the second week, many of them no longer had telephone numbers or contact names on them -- as hope evaporated, they became overtly memorial, simply there to praise and distinguish the dead. The word missing has morphed from a description of the victim to a description of the mourners, an awful double entendre.

And the scattering of services the first few days has yielded to a rush -- even absent any remains. "The families want to know if we do funerals without bodies -- that's the first question they ask," says Father Ron Rozniak of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey, whose parish has lost ten members, all without a trace. "And we do, we always have, not just for this. Then they want to know: What about a grave? A tombstone? A place to go to mourn? Some people are planning to get a plot with a relative so there'll be a place for them to go. We've said to them that if an identifiable body part is uncovered later on, we can do another funeral liturgy or a graveside service. Something."

Mass death has the curious effect of both magnifying a person's importance and trivializing it. These funerals and memorials, traditionally intimate rituals, have become epic events, as public as the deaths of the victims themselves. Last Tuesday, 1,300 people descended on the Church of the Resurrection in Larchmont for the memorial of Frank McGuinn, a managing director at Cantor Fitzgerald; it took nine priests to administer Communion. On Wednesday, 1,700 people crammed into St. Ignatius of Loyola on Park Avenue for Joseph and Daniel Shea, brothers who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald; the family needed six condolence books.

On Thursday, Christine Bennett had a funeral for her fiancé, Danny Rosetti, who perished while installing office furniture for AON on the 105th floor of Tower Two. She felt like half the town of Bloomfield, New Jersey, showed up. "Our escort -- there had to be at least ten police cars out in front with their sirens going," she says. "A councilwoman was there, a person from the United Way was there, four people from the Red Cross were there, one from Oklahoma. Honestly, there were so many they all just started blending together. The town even madeup a resolution and framed it and presented it to us. It's long. I haven't read it. But it's signed by the mayor and they're forwarding it to our senators and the governor and the state legislators and the New Jersey municipalities."

These massive outpourings are, of course, stunning tributes to the dead. But they are also forums for collective grieving; they have become a means for people to work through the events of September 11, even if they were not directly affected.

Ed Fox, director of John J. Fox Funeral Home in Larchmont -- his town lost at least three -- wonders whether these giant ceremonies tend to drown out the needs of the people closest to the deceased. Some families, he says, took to putting up signs on their front doors last week -- firm but polite notes thanking their neighbors for stopping by but further explaining: "We're not receiving people today."

"The families appreciate all the support," says Fox. "But they've had to limit contact with people. So much support can become counterproductive."

At the moment, we seem very much a united city. But invisibly, inevitably, we are subdividing, and we will be doing more of it in the coming months. The obvious schism will be between those who've lost someone and those who haven't. As early as 24 hours after the attack, I could see the city mutely splitting in this way. A couple of college kids came whizzing down the center of Third Avenue on their skateboards, reveling in their freedom now that cars had been banned from lower Manhattan. They sped right by a woman and her son, both wearing pictures of aman pinned to their T-shirts. They were numbly making their way north toward the Armory, clutching dental records and more photos.

Other, more subtle schisms are developing, too: between those who lost dear friends and those who lost acquaintances; between those who lost acquaintances and those who lost no one at all.

In fact, grieving has a whole new geography. People who live downtown are convinced they're living in a different city from that of people who live uptown, for instance, because so many of them saw the whole thing -- the planes, the collapses, the men and women jumping head-first -- and they saw it from their windows or their streets or their roofs, unmediated by television. South of 14th Street, the reminders are also everywhere. The sidewalks are loaded with more debris; people seem to have fewer qualms about plastering apartment buildings with fliers of the missing -- on NYU dorms, on the walls of St. Vincent's, on great walls of cardboard in Union Square. My neighbor has one of those fliers taped to her door. It's a picture of herfiancé.

But propinquity has also given some people an opening for self-righteousness. Exiting the subway recently, a friend of mine heard one woman greet another with the following: "I'm so glad to see someone from downtown." She then pointed to a presumed uptowner. "All she cares about is getting her cappuccino."

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