30 December 2012

9/11 to Newtown: Tragedies link family members in the difficult quest to cope with unbearable loss

In her most recent Washington Post column, Lisa Miller notes that the families of Newtown are going through the difficult process of surviving their great losses. Each family must find ways to cope in their own ways, as have the families of other tragedies: 9/11, Columbine and Virginia Tech.

For example, Adele Welty, whose firefighter son, Timmy, was killed on 9/11, was not one who believed in "moving on." For her, the memory of her son was something to keep close, every day. Jay Winuk lost his brother Glenn in the South Tower on 9/11. "It's hard to imagine that you'll ever heal," he said, "But to provide a happy life to your children or other people, you have to heal. It doesn't mean that the pain ever goes away. The questions remain. How could people go so wrong as to cause so much pain in so many innocent lives?" Monika Iken's husband Michael was killed on 9/11, and though she has remarried, she still feels "like we're still connected spiritually. He sends me signs. I'm always aware of his presence. Rainbows come out of nowhere. Butterflies."

Beverly Eckert's story of horror, loss, pain and healing is very much the same. After Sean's death, she had to answer the monumental question: How do you go on when you lose the person who was at the center of your life, of your heart, your soul? Every day after 9/11 was Beverly's answer to this question. You live a life with meaning. You never forget. You survive. You fashion yourself a new life. You make the world a better place.

21 December 2012

Family members of the Sandy Hook School shooting victims will be powerful forces in the debate on gun violence

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show on NPR and heard one of the guests make an important connection between 9/11 and the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Susan Davis of USA Today was discussing the looming national discussion about the ways to reduce gun violence, and she said that one potentially crucial factor will be the family members of the victims. She noted that after 9/11 it was the family members who were a powerful force in making the country safer. Beverly Eckert and other family members organized demonstrations, vigils, lobbying campaigns, press conferences -- anything that would keep their concerns from being shunted aside or defeated. Many of those who had firsthand knowledge of the workings of Washington have said that if it weren't for the 9/11 family members, the efforts at reform would not have happened. The political opposition -- from the Bush White House, its allies in Congress, the Pentagon, FBI and CIA -- would have just been too great. Beverly and the other family members did not know at first they were up against such formidable forces. They only knew that for the sake of their loved ones they had to do something, and that they would not give up. So that small group of inexperienced, low-budget but passionate, savvy and determined citizen activists took on Washington and won.

The family members of Sandy Hook are still reeling, still healing. But soon they will be asking themselves, "Why did this happen? How can we make sure it doesn't happen again?" Then they will join hands, united in the love of those they lost, and take on the powerful forces arrayed against them. For once, the biggest political bully in Washington, the NRA, may finally meet its match.

18 December 2012

A lesson from Beverly Eckert: cherish those you love every day, "Because life can change in an instant"

Once again, hell has visited earth.

This time, it was at a grade school in Newtown, Connecticut. The pain it brought, the gaping, black-draped sadness, reminds us of times past when a day of horror left us weeping for the loss of those we loved. For so many, including me, the slaying of those 26 innocents brought back the shock and vertigo of 9/11.

Now, just as then, the first question is "Why?" Then, a gathering sense that something must be done. "We can't tolerate this anymore," President Obama told the people of Newtown. "These tragedies must end." In the same way, Beverly Eckert, other family members, politicians and others worked tirelessly to make the country safer after the hell of that clear September day in 2001.

At times such as these, there are other lessons as well. The most important being: show your love in words and deeds each and every passing day. Because you just never know. This thought was in my head on Friday, December 14, the day of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Just two days before I had been transcribing an interview with Beverly's sister, Karen Eckert. I had asked her to tell me about the days before and after 9/11 because this was the one subject I did not cover with Beverly. She had talked to me at length about her early years in Buffalo, her life with her husband, Sean Rooney, and her work after 9/11. But I knew that even though she had spoken about the day itself many, many times -- to friends and relatives, to journalists, and at official hearings -- it would still be the most difficult part of our collaboration. So I had left that topic as the last one, because it would not be easy, and because I thought we would have time. Turns out, we didn't.

Karen told me that Beverly's memory of the times with Sean just before 9/11 were peaceful, warm and filled with a deep, mellow love. On the evening of September 10th, Sean had his arm around Beverly as they sat at the end of the day in their den, a soft rain outside, the soothing strains of "Theme from a Summer Place" playing on the stereo. Both of them had a sense that life was good, and the reason for that was that they had each other. The next morning, as he was leaving on his commute to the World Trade Center, Sean walked up behind his beloved, softly kissed the back of her neck, and said, "You make me so very happy."

It was the last time she would be kissed by her best friend, her partner, her one love. The magic of that moment stuck with her, treasured until the end. And the lesson, too. Karen said that after Sean's death, Beverly "always used to say to us: 'If you love someone, don't leave the house without telling them something nice -- 'I love you' or 'This is great' -- because life can change in an instant.'"