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Creating a new normal after 9/11

By Denise Olsen

The night before was so ordinary that, honestly, I can barely recall it. My husband, Jeff, had swapped tours at the firehouse and wouldn’t be home until the following evening. He was a fireman; I was a nurse. We were often like ships passing in the night. When he was home, I worked, and vice versa. It allowed us to raise our three children without sitters. 

We had our future planned out—expanding our family, our home, promotions, college funds.

I spoke to Jeff on the phone that evening. He called to say he was staying for the day tour to cover for someone. We chatted briefly, said good night and the usual “I love you.” Unbeknownst to me, it would be the last time I heard his voice. Even now, it blows my mind that something so devastating can sneak up on you like this. You never see it coming…

I woke the next morning to the most gorgeous autumn sky. It’s odd how when we are broken down to our core, we remember the seemingly smallest details. It was Tuesday, September 11.

When I first heard the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center, I wasn’t scared at all. In fact, when I saw the fire blazing, I was excited for my husband. Being a firefighter’s wife, I know how they anticipate the “Big One.” Jeff loved fighting fires. Nothing made him happier than being able to serve his community and to save lives. It was when the next plane hit and we all realized that we were under attack that the fear and feeling of impending doom began to creep in.

When the first tower fell, I knew it was bad and prayed he was in the one that was still standing. When the second tower fell, I prayed that he would survive. I didn’t care how broken he was—I just wanted him home. The thought of him being killed never entered my mind.

I have had close to 17 years to learn about resilience.

Days passed and it seemed that thousands of people had vanished into the grey cloud of dust that swept through Lower Manhattan. I prayed that I would simply be able to look at his face again—dead or alive. The pain was unbearable, visceral, and actually physical. At times I had to tell myself to breathe. I didn’t want him left there. Forty days passed before they found him and brought him home.

I have had close to 17 years to learn about resilience. My life was torn apart without warning. I have spent countless hours digging deep into my own soul while concurrently studying the grieving process and what trauma does to a person. One of the most important things I have learned is that there is no right or wrong to any of it. There are no rules. This is frightening, but glorious at the same time.

In the beginning, I was doing whatever it took to simply get through the day. I spent a long time wishing I had my old life back. I made decisions based on what I thought Jeff would have wanted. Eventually, I learned that living that way does not work anymore. Realizing this may have been worse than actually losing him.

Time has passed, and I am no longer numb the way I was the day it happened. I recall saying to myself, “this is never changing…this is my life” and feeling completely defeated. This is where I learned the most valuable lesson of my life: It all comes down to choice. I will survive—meaning, live and breathe—without much effort. But to thrive and be happy again, I had to consciously choose to move toward happiness. 

I began to create a new “normal” and it was the hardest thing I have ever done. 

It required strength, faith, fortitude, and patience—lots of patience. It also required me to accept help. No one survives alone.

At times, it felt like I would take a step forward only to slide right back down the slope. I didn’t realize that every single time I got up, dusted myself off, and started again, I was stronger. It is only in hindsight that I can see my own strength and grace. I discovered the things that made me feel good. For me, the catalyst was yoga. It reminded me of who I truly am.

If I knew this would be my life, I would willingly say yes to him and all that came with loving and losing him over and over again. That is resilience.

Sharing my story has also allowed me the privilege of being a part of the healing process for others—specifically, our military members and their families. This has helped keep my husband’s legacy alive, and also taught me the value of service, commitment, leadership, and compassion. I have arrived at a place in my life where I am grateful for my journey, even the scariest parts of it. That gratitude has allowed me to continue to grow into my fullest potential, to carry on my husband’s name, and to create a legacy of my own. If I knew this would be my life, I would willingly say yes to him and all that came with loving and losing him over and over again. That is resilience.

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