16 years after 9/11, grieving process continues for families

Published 1:00 am Monday, September 11, 2017

By Carol Polsky, Newsday

When James Giaccone of Bayville, New York, wants to feel close to his older brother, he goes to bronze panel M-36 rimming the 9/11 Memorial reflecting pool in the footprint of the original World Trade Center’s north tower.

There, he touches the engraved name of Joseph M. Giaccone, one of 658 Cantor Fitzgerald employees — and nearly 3,000 workers, first responders and plane passengers — who died 16 years ago in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There is no other grave site, as none of his remains were ever returned to the family.

Email newsletter signup

His father, Vincent, who died in 2011, “wanted his son’s remains recovered rather than being dust at that terrible site,” said Giaccone, 57, a plumbing contractor. “He wanted the physicality of bringing him away from there and bringing him home.”

“Some people don’t want their last image to be that of a fragment,” he said. “My father would have taken anything.”

Today is the anniversary observance of the most deadly terror attack on United States soil, when two hijacked planes were flown into the Twin Towers and caused their collapse. Family members will again recite the names of 2,983 people, including those who died there, and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., in Pennsylvania where a hijacked plane crashed, and in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

The families of many of those victims find themselves in a similar situation as Giaccone does. The remains of about 40 percent of the 2,753 World Trade Center victims were too damaged to be easily identifiable. The process continues — the most recent identification was announced last month — but despite improvements in DNA analysis techniques, progress is slow. The grieving process for those who never received remains may be no more profound than for those who did, but it is different, said a psychologist who worked with 9/11 families for a decade.

“Families who didn’t have bodies went through a much more difficult process; there was no finality to the process,” said Thomas Demaria, who is a clinical psychologist and director of Long Island University Post’s Psychological Services Center now treating 9/11 first responders. “There’s this incompleteness that they feel, something missing from the grieving process. There’s a sense of longing for that resolution.”

Demaria said that after a death of a loved one, people often need time for the “mind to catch up to reality.”

They may find themselves searching for their loved ones, think they see them in a mall or hear their voice in a crowd, he said.

“The unconscious part of the mind hasn’t come to acceptance even when there is a body.”

When there are no identified remains, people “can’t rely on cultural or religious rituals of putting the body in the grave to help the transition from the physical to the spiritual realm, from the person being there physically to always being in our hearts and minds.”

Giaccone said that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he went to his 43-year-old brother’s New Jersey home, collected his hairbrush, toothbrush and dental records and gave a swab from his mouth to provide DNA material for a hoped-for identification.

“And then we waited and waited and waited, and obviously, nothing,” he said. “We all felt he is out there and not under our guardianship. There was a huge skip in the steps of mourning. You have this ceremony and this person is supposed to be in front of you. You are supposed to be able to say your goodbyes.

“Instead, we had to engage with a picture and just our memories,” he said.

For Giaccone, the greatest relief comes from his work as a docent giving tours at the 9/11 Tribute Museum on Greenwich Street. It is a separate museum from the official National September 11 Memorial & Museum, one where family members, survivors, first responders and area residents tell visitors from all over the world about their experiences and about the lives of the loved ones they lost.

For years, he felt his connection to 9/11 cast a shadow over his encounters with people. The opportunity to speak freely and emotionally about his brother at the museum was “life changing for me,” he said.

“It wasn’t taboo, it wasn’t off limits. It was there to be spoken about and the sun was brighter after this opportunity.”

A repository of remains under the World Trade Center site, next to the 9/11 Museum, is viewable through a window from a “reflection room” for families. Some objected to situating the remains there, pushing for a more tomblike monument. But it has given other families comfort, and a place where they can feel close to their loved ones.

Jennifer Odien, who is the World Trade Center anthropologist at the New York City medical examiner’s office, the agency responsible for identifying the victims, said her job was “working as the middleman between the WTC remains and the families.” She greets the families when they come to the repository, contacts them when there is an identification, and answers their questions when they call.

“A lot of them are still hopeful when we tell them we are still testing and still ID’ing remains,” she said. “There is hope in their heart, but you can see that it is still weighing on them, they are still very sad about them. Even family members who do get remains identified, it brings it back to the surface and it’s sad. But they usually say, ‘Thank you so much, we appreciate it, we would like to continue to get these phone calls.’ It’s sad but it’s helpful.”

Some families have said they don’t want to be called, including some who have received remains several times, and some who don’t want them at all.

That includes the Frank family, who raised their son, Morton, and two older daughters in Lynbrook, New York, and whose Morty Frank Memorial Fund endows college scholarships for Lynbrook Senior High School graduates.

Once intact bodies were no longer being found at the site, Phyllis Frank, now 77, and her husband, Mel, 80, decided they didn’t want fragmented remains of their son, who was 31 and a newly wed vice president of institutional sales at Cantor Fitzgerald when he died.

“I did not want to be presented two years later with a finger,” said Phyllis Frank, who still sees a psychiatrist twice a month to deal with her ongoing emotions about her son’s death. “I know what happened to him. My decision was to remember him as a whole person. He is with me all the time, as a whole person.”

The family will not be at the 9/11 Memorial today. Instead, they will go to a nearby park bench, which each year since 2001 they’ve found covered in flowers and tributes to their son.

The bench, in Duane Park, across from the building in lower Manhattan where he lived, has a plaque that reads: “In memory of Morty Frank, forever loved and remembered. Feb. 5, 1970-Sept. 11, 2001.” It is where his family and friends go to feel close to his memory.

“I think we all feel that when we get to that park,” said Frank, who now lives with her husband in Manhattan, where she also gives tours at the Tribute Museum.

“I can sit on that bench where I know he probably sat in the morning with his dog, and his coffee,” she said. “It’s important to have a place where you can go to feel the presence of the person who’s not with you.”

She added, “It’s a beautiful park, it’s wonderful to be there. I’m just lucky to have that.”