Tiny tomes, big ideas
Family’s mourning of 9/11 death offers valuable lessons
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On Grief: Love, Loss, Memory is not a self-help book. Nor is it a challenge to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s notion of the five stages of grief, at least not directly. It’s the extraordinary account of the grief suffered by the family of Robert George (Bobby) McIlvaine, who died at age 26 in the 9/11 attacks in New York City in 2001.
Jennifer Senior was fortunate to have a connection to the family; her brother (unnamed) was Bobby’s roommate in 2001, and she knew the family. She used this connection to interrogate Bobby’s mother, father, brother and fiancée to write this essay for the Atlantic magazine. Originally titled Twenty Years Gone, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2022.
Even luckier for Senior is the fact that each member of the McIlvaine family mourned in dramatically different ways. This is no surprise. As Senior notes: “Every mourner has a different story to tell.”
And not just the McIlvaines. Mourning is “idiosyncratic, anarchic, polychrome.” The McIlvaines just happen to be particularly vivid examples.
After 20 years, Bobby’s father still nurtures his anger, convinced irrationally that the U.S. government had something to do with the Twin Towers’ destruction. This puts a continuing strain on his marriage. His wife mourns more calmly, though she changes her response over the course of the years. After 10 years, she believes “[s]he’d kept too much in, and she was fermenting in her own brine.”
Senior is an astute organizer of the details and developments of this story. Bobby’s fiancée ends up completely alienated from the family. The reasons are hinted at early in this account, but Senior holds off the full story until it’s strategically necessary. Bobby’s brother ultimately seems to have developed the healthiest attitude to the tragedy. His story comes last in the book.
On Grief: Love, Loss, Memory is written sympathetically and is sprinkled generously with captivating prose and wise insights. It ends with Bobby’s mother wondering about the lessons of the entire ordeal. Despite the agony of a son’s death, caring for him, loving him, in Senior’s words, “was a privilege. It was a gift. It was a bittersweet sacrifice. And that, in itself, is life.”
When it first appeared in the Atlantic, Twenty Years Gone was considered a “long-form essay.” It has not been expanded. So, it makes a short book. But it’s a valuable one — not a guide to the grieving process, just an instructive series of lessons.
Gene Walz is a Winnipeg writer.
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