Saying Goodbye

By Lynn Tierney, Contributor
October / November 2003

It’s easier to accept loss if you get to say goodbye. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s the finality that’s missing for so many who were impacted by the events of September 11th.

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We caught 130 pounds of lobster this morning. The tide was high and the ocean was as smooth as glass. Seals poked up out of the water and cormorants dried their wings standing still on the rocks. It was a perfect Maine day — overcast, breezy and cool enough to offset the hard work on the boat.

Today this was a workboat. Last week, Neil, the lobsterman, had the boat filled with dear friends, a family scattering the ashes of their beloved wife and mother. He trailed an empty dinghy behind, a tradition among fishermen, to say goodbye to Lainie, who had lost her battle with cancer and settled into her final rest on the waters in front of her home, just as she’d requested. Many times in the last two weeks, as I described her last days; how she was flown home to Maine and how she got to say goodbye to her family, people have looked at me and said, “how wonderful that she got to say goodbye.” This is a precious treasured gift, a rarity, and something to hold on to.

As the second anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster draws closer, I think about how not having had a chance to say goodbye or to have a quiet farewell aboard a lobster boat is what has left so many hearts unquieted. It’s easier to accept loss if you get to say goodbye. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s the finality that’s missing for so many who were impacted by the events of September 11th.

The first year the shock, prolonged search, public outcry, sympathy and then event after event, memorial, funeral or some kind of tribute all created the needed salve of distraction. Everyone was numb and didn’t start really coming to terms with things until after the first anniversary. My experience in the last several months has proven to me that the second year was in some ways harder than the first for many of us. As life goes on, it also seems impossible that it can. Life is never the same but it turns out to be livable, altered, but survivable. People have survived, many have found strength they never thought they had and have begun to feel again.

As the second anniversary comes along we see people in varying stages of survival, all trying to sort through and start over in their own way. The groups that formed around causes early on in the crisis have evolved into strong grassroots organizations with a voice in decision making. The members of those groups have found action is the best way for them to work through their sorrow. They are doing it together and they have come to love and respect each other. Some are criticized for not staying home and spending more time with their families. Others who shunned organizations and groups and stayed home are criticized for not getting out and getting involved. Some have lost weight, some have gained, some haven’t exercised, and some can’t stop running. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the loss and pain, and there is no right or wrong way.

I left the Fire Department that I loved. It was terribly hard to leave, but too painful to stay. Too many changes, different energy, and too many empty desks once occupied by people I loved and who were lost. I work with a great friend now in a job that is just as hectic but very different. Nobody dies here if something goes bad. My friends say I need to put some of the energy I used to expend on my Fire Department life into my own life, getting in shape, making some money, seeing people I haven’t had the chance to see in the last seven years, talking through my issues with someone. I am doing most of that but sometimes it takes a concentration on myself that I feel is selfish and trivial in light of what others have to deal with.

The greatest discovery is that everybody feels that way. We laugh sometimes when we are together and start complaining about the everyday trials we face. We get caught short realizing that it’s crazy to be upset by a missed flight or a cranky relative. In light of the massive issues we have been managing, it’s great to think that life has returned to a place where minor aggravations are getting some attention.

We drifted this morning on the calm ocean and I thought about how lucky I am to have the chance to be here in Maine in this boat with people I love. I didn’t think it was possible to feel more strongly about it but as I watch the puffs of wind shake up the surface of the water or see the marsh hawks circle, I am deeply conscious of how much I would miss it if I couldn’t be here and how much I appreciate every minute I have.

On September 11th, I’ll go to services and think about my friends and I’ll feel terrible for their loss, for everybody’s loss, and pray for healing. Then I’ll do what I’ve done to get through the hardest times in my life, visualize myself back in the lobsterboat, drifting on the tide. ♦

(Lynn Tierney served as Deputy Commissioner of FDNY, and prior to that she was a senior public affairs official with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for 12 years. Lynn left the Fire Department on March 17th, 2002 to become Director of External Affairs for the Arnell Group, a branding and marketing firm associated with Omnicom.)

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