16 Years Later: Reflections on Coping with Loss after 9/11
Months before 9/11, my 5th-grade class cruised around the NYC harbor to celebrate our graduation from elementary school. Using film cameras, we photographed the skyline, which was punctuated by the striking architecture of the Twin Towers—pictures I’d flip to again and again in my photo album in the days following 9/11. Mentally switching between the clouds of smoke on the TV and the untouched blue sky I held in my hand, I tried to reconcile my nostalgic vignettes of New York with an unbelievable reality.
My fellow peers and I, like most teenagers in the NYC and DC areas, would have a distinct experience of the harrowing events unfolding close to home. Years later in my crisis counseling and developmental psychology courses, 9/11 served as a textbook example of the influence of global events on personal development. For young people in the NYC and DC areas, it meant a spike in reported anxiety post-9/11.
The developmental tasks of navigating the first week of middle school, social hierarchy, and puberty were interrupted by the task of understanding something our emotional vocabulary couldn’t explain. We didn’t have the option to keep these events at a distance, as the impact of loss revealed itself in our community. Trauma and grief would unravel and reshape our coming of age. My personal reshaping would be marked by a deepened connection with music and expanded range of emotional expression in the aftermath of loss.
On 9/11, a steady stream of students left school throughout the day. Students weren’t given direct access to news, but information trickled down from the upper classmen. We racked our brains accounting for the people we knew in the city and conjured worst-case scenarios; nothing we imagined came close to align with reality. My mom picked me up from the bus stop at the end of the day, and turned on the TV when we walked in the door. Watching, horrified, the images on the TV felt both close and distant, otherworldly. I experienced the universal reaction of denial, disbelief, and shock.
As a budding introvert, I retreated to my room and found myself staring at the ceiling, somewhat annoyed that TV and radio programming had been replaced by emergency coverage. I was too stunned to remember the fleeting worry I suppressed in the last period of the day. But when my mom called me into our office and shut the door, my stomach turned.
My cousin Rob Peraza, the one person I knew who lived and worked in Manhattan, worked on the 104th floor of the North Tower.
Rob was the oldest cousin on my dad’s side of the family. He had dark smiling eyes and interpersonal qualities that lifted others’ spirits. He seemed to balance ambition with fun and was the kind of grown up I hoped to be: moving through life with purpose and light-heartedness. In my memories of him, he’s laughing. My little sister and I were the youngest cousins of the crew; Rob had much patience with our high energy and compassion towards my irrational fear of his dog, Otis. Around Rob’s 30th birthday in May 2001, he shared with his parents in a letter that he was genuinely happy with the life he created in New York, with a community of friends, a fulfilling career, and a relationship headed towards a happily ever after.
Rob’s family—his parents, Sue and Bob, and his siblings, Joan and Neil—traveled to our home in the days following. The atmosphere at home became heavy, hurried, and exhausting, shifting between hope and hopelessness. Adults were making phone calls and taking trips to NYC area hospitals to look for Rob. I was either downstairs giving hugs or out of the way in my room.
Without a framework for coping with tragedy and sudden loss, I turned to where many 90s teens searched for understanding and expression of emotion—the airwaves.
My most prized Christmas present from the late 90s was a Sony stereo. This device became my portal to pop-culture. I was pleased with myself for learning how to record radio hits onto cassette tapes, which I could play on repeat until I knew Z100NewYork’s “Top 9 at 9:00” by heart. Every day after school, I did homework in my room, soaking up each Jay-Z song and pop-radio news byte Z100 offered. On September 12, 2001, Z100 returned with special programming. I spent hours sitting in front of my stereo, listening, and filling in the gaps, hearing what parents, teachers and news anchors had not shared: personal stories from the phone lines and ground zero merged with songs to create tributes. Enya’s “Only Time,” Jewel’s “Hands,” and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero,” along with wrenching classics from the 80s and 90s, brought chills to what would become a national audience that day.
Through music and stories, I began to form a small understanding of this event. Honest, distinct voices of resilient New Yorkers pointedly shared their accounts of terror, trauma, fear, anger, confusion, courage, heroism, hope, grief, despair, patriotism, and sacrifice. I did not know when the special programming would end, and Enya’s voice brought so much peace that I was compelled to make a different type of recording that afternoon.
I put in a blank cassette, and I hit record.
The rest of that day cycled between spending time with family and retreating to my room to listen and record. I wasn’t allowed to go into the city; feeling helpless, the act of recording served to bear what couldn’t be fixed. By the end of the day, I filled side A and B of a cassette with 90 minutes of tributes and songs.
A surge of patriotism and support rippled throughout our community, with a focus on rebuilding and comforting 9/11 survivors, and bringing out the indomitable New York spirit. It turned out that a few students in my school lost family members, but all had been personally affected by the attacks in some way. After a month or so, attention in school redirected to concerns of early-adolescence, while the passage of time meant confirmation for my family what we feared was true. Memorial services for Rob were planned after weeks had passed. As we traveled, I kept my Sony Walkman close as I sat in the back-left corner of the family van, my tape of the radio broadcast on repeat.
Sixteen years later, I’m sitting in my husband’s Jeep, listening to the tape churn through our only cassette player—what I’m hearing now feels jarring, raw and irreverent, authentically New York. I’m trying to understand what led my 11-year-old self to hit record on the NYC pop radio coverage of events following the attacks on the World Trade Center. I don’t like what I’m hearing. It’s the unfinished story, an active wrestle with the unknowns of grief. But I know how important it must have been for me to hear this vulnerability before 9/11 narratives were polished up or politicized. The blunt coverage conveyed what I needed to hear: that I wasn’t alone and that it was normal to experience a range of contradictory and intense emotions.
Music bore and expressed what I could not define as an 11-year-old. I didn’t know that grief and trauma can be too much to bear.
Music created space for me to grieve.
Instead of running from or ignoring reality—an act which can leave us exhausted and numb to both joy and sorrow—I could repeat songs or let them loop in my brain for as long as I needed, with the option of pressing pause on both the music and the emotion.
I would learn later that this was a necessary part of grieving, feeling the intensity thereof while also finding respite. I needed to zone out and laugh, and I also needed to ride the waves of grief. Our instinct is to escape that which is too painful, for fear we’ll become stuck. Simultaneously, we fear the end of those painful emotions as a disconnection with what we’ve lost. Working with grief personally and professionally, I’ve found that physical boundaries for visiting our pain—whether it be a song, a chair, an object, or a therapist’s office—coupled with meaningful rituals of connection to the loss, can support us while we face the unchartered process of grieving.
When we are flooded with intense emotions, areas in the brain responsible for higher order thinking, like verbalizing our experiences, shut down. Sometimes we need to access our emotional experiences of events through other means like music. Music can capture a feeling we cannot verbally articulate. It beautifully provides individuality and spontaneity in expressiveness, balanced with structure and familiarity. Containing and expanding emotion, music can hold us safely together or open us up.
In the process of coping with loss and the 9/11 tragedy, I accessed the healing power of music and a coping ritual that would become part of me from that point on—representative of growth often born in the instability of trauma.
In the 2000s, digital media replaced my stereo; instead of tapes, I have a collection of mix CDs and playlists representing difficult and joyful seasons. A handful of songs have been looped on repeat, holding key emotional memories and milestones. When these songs catch me unexpectedly in the present, I have the gift of remembering the people, losses, and lessons connected to the songs. When I could have turned to destructive habits in more rough years of adolescence (and may have benefited from counseling), music and choir were therapeutic lifelines. Listening to and making music continues to be a practice of mindfulness and emotional processing for me; I am still hitting record.
Family members and close friends of lost loved ones are never ready to stop sharing stories and celebrating the lives of the deceased. Grief continues to sting, though with less intensity over time, while those around you move forward. My family found ways to cope with loss individually and collectively. My sisters wrote and my brother actively participated in memorial activities. I found meaning in creating a time capsule of music and memories, revisiting it with new perspective and experience as time passed. Aunt Sue, Uncle Bob, Joan, and Neil have led our family in actively keeping Rob’s memory alive, sharing with us Rob’s kind spirit and passion for life. We celebrate Rob’s life and stay connected to him through rituals of remembrance, which allow us to move forward together in hope.
Every year for 10 years after 9/11, a family member or friend ran the NYC Marathon under Rob’s bib number, as he was training to run the 2001 marathon before he died. The Peraza’s host an annual golf tournament in New York to benefit Rob’s scholarship fund at St. Bonaventure University, which always has a strong representation of friends from Rob’s college rugby team. Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob stayed actively connected to the community of 9/11 survivors, and would eventually participate in a reading of names of victims during the 10th-anniversary proceedings at the memorial. This event would unknowingly produce an iconic photograph of my Uncle Bob kneeling by the north pool to honor Rob’s memory. Marking the 15th anniversary in 2016 was heightened with grief by the loss of my Uncle Bob to cancer. The anniversary is now a day to honor both Robert Perazas: one lost to unimaginable tragedy and one who led us in living after loss.
Time moved me further away from New York City, eventually to the southeast, where I’d find that my family, 9/11 survivors, and residents of the tri-state area had a different 9/11 narrative than the majority of Americans. My cassette tape traveled with me in my box of sentimental belongings, remaining a portal to New York City and my adolescence, reminding me that the reach of the loss of 2,977 lives couldn’t be contained in a paragraph in my AP textbook or a single patriotic song. Hearing the first notes of “Only Time” in our Jeep, I’m covered in goosebumps, knowing I will never forget.