Buried deep in this piece about a family that lost a son, brother, and fiancée to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 is a notion that may seem familiar to those who’ve had occasion to find themselves awash in grief and somehow manage to surface again: The dead abandon you. Then, with the passage of time, you abandon the dead.
But the truth of it is, the grief that feels like abandonment comes to be, if you survive it, a kind of sustaining transformative force rather than something that ever really leaves you.
For The Atlantic this month, writer Jennifer Senior chronicles life for a family after the life of Bobby McIlvaine comes to an end. Bobby died the morning of September 11, 2001, while visiting the Twin Towers for a work function and the story is an exploration of mourning and how closely grief is intertwined with love. But it’s also a story of resilience and self-preservation, the ways we find to cope with the unthinkable, and the ways we learn to relate to and to accept one another in order to carry on.
Senior, a family friend to the McIlvaines (Senior’s brother was Bobby’s roommate in college and afterwards at the time of Bobby’s death at age 26) pins her narrative on a diary that belonged to Bobby that, in a moment of haste, Bobby’s father, Bob Sr., gives to Bobby’s fiancée, Jen, whose “name was all over it.” Bobby’s mother, Helen, begs Jen to give the diary back while Jen is living with the McIlvaines for a time following Bobby’s death. But she won’t. And at some point, Jen disappears from the McIlvaines’ lives, leaving all kinds of loose ends untied.
Bob Sr. and Helen, and Bobby’s younger brother, Jeff, deal with Bobby’s death in their own different ways.
Bob Sr. throws himself into researching 9/11 conspiracies, becoming mired in various narratives suggesting that the attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government, talking to whoever will listen to him about what he thinks really happened that day. It’s his way, Senior writes, of “keeping the grief close.”
For Bobby’s mother, Helen, mourning looks much different. She avoids the local grocery store so no one can ask her how she’s doing. She grows angry when others talk about their children, their living children, and their achievements and lives and happinesses. She can’t socialize with her husband any longer because of his seeming need to constantly rehash 9/11 theories.
But, Helen realizes, she can’t leave Bob, her son’s Little League coach and the “only other person in the world who understands what it feels like to have raised Bobby.” Eventually, Helen stops bottling up her sadness. She joins a support group and takes up running, at age 60, “not only because it felt good but because it allowed her to cry.”
Bob Sr. and Helen find redemption in the life of their younger son, Jeff, who marries and has four children because, Jeff says, “When you go through something like this, you realize that family—it’s the only thing.”
“Those kids,” Senior writes of Bob’s and Helen’s grandchildren, “are at the center of the McIlvaines’ lives.”
Which brings us to Jen, and Bobby’s diary, which she still has and, finally, is ready to part with. Jen struggles with her own complex feelings about Bobby’s death that closely coincided with the death of her mother. But, in spite of all that, it’s not a broken person we find but rather a lucid, unbitter, seemingly happy one.
By the end of the piece, you’ll realize that everyone has, in some sense of the phrase, moved on.
Bobby is gone but, that his memory has guided the paths of those who loved him feels like restoration and newfound strength. Bob, Helen, Jeff, and Jen haven’t abandoned Bobby or his memory so much as they’ve been changed, in vital ways, by his departure and what they’ve gone on to make their lives look like in his absence.
What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind is a beautiful account of the fragmentation of families and relationships in wake of 9/11, 20 years on. It’s the story of individualized grief and of how love and loss have the power to destroy you—or the power that you have not to be destroyed, to go on loving, and living, when doing simply that seems utterly unbearable.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Follow Editor-in-Chief Jane Porter on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.