The bookshelves inside Judy Bram Murphy’s light-drenched apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan are filled with photographs from before: a wedding portrait, a baby picture, a snapshot of Judy, her two daughters, and her husband, Brian. Looking at the photographs, you can almost pretend that September 11, 2001, never happened, that the two jets never flew into the World Trade Center towers. You can almost pretend that Brian came home from work that day.
But Bram Murphy has no desire to pretend. Brian’s death left her a young widow and a single mother to Jessica, who was then five years old, and Leila, who was not quite four. Since then, public attention has drifted to a pair of wars waged at least partly in the name of those who died, to inquiries into whether better intelligence might have prevented the attacks. The Pentagon has been rebuilt, and plans for redeveloping lower Manhattan are under way.
But what of the families of those who died that day? Out of the spotlight they have tried to resume living, tried to resist becoming overwhelmed by anger and grief, tried to negotiate the sometimes awkward sympathy of acquaintances and the superficial assumptions of those who see them, simply and incompletely, as September 11 survivors.
Parents like Bram Murphy have to figure out how to respond when their children say, “I wish he were here.” They need to find their way through such special occasions as birthday parties, Father’s Day, and Mother’s Day. They need to strive for normalcy while keeping the memories of their spouses alive for themselves and their children. Complicating the task is the sudden, gruesome, and historic nature of the September 11 deaths. For the families left behind, everything changed in an unimaginable way over the course of a single morning, a change they are often reminded of as they read the newspaper or encounter memorials to the victims
When Bram Murphy runs into acquaintances who want to know how she’s been faring over the past two years, she doesn’t know how to answer. People tend to assume one of two things: that she is perpetually upset or de-pressed, or that by now she should be feeling better. “It’s one of those situations that is not linear,” she says. A clinical psychologist, she is a particularly astute and articulate observer of her own emotions. She has good days and bad days, she says; there are moments when she feels content and others when the sadness and the loneliness are crushing. “People in general,” she says, “have trouble understanding that I’m not one thing for having this one thing happen to me.”
Like many others who lost someone they loved on that clear, late-summer day, Judy Bram Murphy is finding her way in this new post–September 11 world. She reminds herself that it was her husband, not she and her children, who lost the most that day. “So many people complain or are dissatisfied, and he felt so lucky to have what he had,” she says. “It just seems that he should have lived longer.”
JUDY BRAM MET BRIAN MURPHY at a party in New York City in the spring of 1991. “We immediately had some kind of chemistry, connection,” she says. Brian asked for her phone number, but he didn’t write it down. “I thought, he’s not going to remember that,” she says with a smile. Less than a week later, he called. “He was the first guy I ever went out with on the first date who asked me questions and did less of the talking.” They fell in love on a summer trip to Paris and the south of France. They married in 1994. Jessica followed two years later, and Leila a year after that. “I remember he said to me, ‘I will never be bored with you,’ ” Judy recalls. “I felt the same way with him.” Brian seemed to relish even the most mundane family tasks. He did most of the cooking. He taught the girls to bike and swim. He shopped for their clothes. Sometimes he even did their hair. “We never got baby-sitters on the weekends,” his wife says. “He always had a million ideas of things to do.”
And then one day he was gone. Early on September 11, 2001, Bram Murphy dropped off Jessica at kindergarten and Leila at nursery school. She was in the elevator, leaving the nursery school, when the attendant told her a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. That was all he knew.
She ran six blocks home. Brian coordinated electronic bond trading for eSpeed at Cantor Fitzgerald in the north tower, the first one hit that morning. At 8:46 a.m., he was in a meeting on the 105th floor, ten stories above where American Airlines flight 11 exploded into the glass and steel of the building. As soon as Judy reached her two-bedroom apartment, she frantically called her husband, her mother, and her brother but reached none of them. A friend came over, then her family arrived. They waited.
In the days that followed she tried to maintain hope as Brian’s family searched the city’s hospitals. At a gathering for Cantor families, she encountered a man who had been in the meeting with her husband and who’d survived because he’d left to greet clients in the lobby. “Nobody got out,” he said to her. That’s when she knew there was no hope.
She felt anxious and confused—almost disoriented. “There was an element of my life being completely upended,” she says, “and also an element of the whole world being upended. I felt like my whole life had been dismembered.”
She now had to reorient herself. When a loss is sudden and violent, the people left behind are more likely to suffer from a condition known in the mental-health field as traumatic grief, which is more intense and more protracted than the grief that usually comes after an expected loss. “You have to figure out what happened before you can even pull yourself together to cope,” says Therese Rando, author of How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies and clinical director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss, in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Even though Bram Murphy was traumatized, she had to pull herself together to attend to the myriad details made necessary by her husband’s death. She called her patients and canceled their sessions. She applied for social security and workers’ compensation. She obtained a death certificate, a task made complicated by the absence of a body. “I was in such a state of shock,” she says, “that I almost wasn’t feeling everything as I was doing it. I was going through the motions.” She maintained enough composure to plan a memorial service and set up a scholarship fund at her husband’s alma mater, Williams College. In addition, because she and Brian somehow never got around to drawing up a will, she had to get herself appointed the legal guardian of her children, an expensive process that took six months to complete.
She also had to tell her daughters that their father was dead and then to help them cope with that reality. On the day of the attacks she told them simply that a plane had crashed into a building, that Brian had been inside, and that nobody knew whether he was okay. Once family members began searching New York City hospitals, the children convinced themselves that their father was alive. Then one day, when Leila declared, “He’s in the hospital,” her mother’s reply was direct. “He’s not in the hospital,” she said. “He was killed.” Two years later, Bram Murphy can barely remember what the moment was like. She has no memory of her children’s reaction. “Telling them, I’m sure, was hard,” she says, “but there was a part of me that was disconnected from it and the feelings associated with it.”
Just three weeks after the attacks, she returned to her part-time private practice in clinical psychology. She says it was an easy decision: her career had always been separate from her life with Brian, and as a result it did not change with his death. At home everything was a reminder of the way life used to be; her office became a sort of refuge. She could be a therapist, not a professional widow, and she relished the work of helping her patients examine their own lives, temporarily relieving the burden of her own.
FOR MOST PEOPLE the death of a spouse is a personal loss, but the entire nation—and much of the world—feels somehow connected to the grief of the September 11 families. Many, Bram Murphy says, reached out with a kindness and generosity that she could never have imagined and that went far beyond anything she would have received had Brian died of a heart attack or in a car accident. Her yoga studio, for example, gave her two years of free instruction. Grief counselors this spring organized a day of activities for the children of the victims. Perhaps most touching, a woman last year asked for an assortment of Brian’s T-shirts and ties and meticulously crafted them into three patchwork quilts—one for each of the family’s beds. The gifts are comforting but also sometimes painful. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Bram Murphy says, pointing out a small sculpture in her living room. The sculpture is made from the metal debris at Ground Zero. “You have no warning. You open the door and there’s this sculpture. You’re happy, but you’re also upset to get it.”
Randall Marshall, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, says the public grief over September 11 is in some respects a curse. As the director of trauma studies and services at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Marshall helped train mental-health professionals how to deal with the emotional scars resulting from the attacks. “There are reminders everywhere,” he says. “It’s inescapable. You don’t have the option of going at your own pace.” Rando says there is a tendency to pigeonhole the victims’ families, to forget they have identities beyond the tragedy. “It can become very constraining,” she says. “It’s the most monumental event of our time, and to be associated with it in such a horrific way is not necessarily how people want to be making their mark in the world.”
Bram Murphy cannot help but notice that strangers and acquaintances are overtly interested in her life, sometimes to the point of voyeurism. “There was a woman following me around at school for months who I didn’t know,” she says. “And then finally she said, ‘Are you the one whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center?’ ” The intentions of such people are usually good, but the effects of their actions are not always what they imagine.
“Sometimes people are responding with their own feelings,” Bram Murphy adds. “They’re trying to make you feel better, and they actually make you feel worse. Because you don’t want pity. You just want somebody to be genuine. You don’t want the drama. There’s a lot of drama.” On the other hand, it can be just as uncomfortable to encounter someone who has no idea what happened. She remembers the day her children’s dentist, making small talk after a cleaning, declared: “Your husband must be so upset that your two daughters look exactly like you!” She and her daughters did not say a word. The tension was palpable.
On the first anniversary of the attacks, Bram Murphy traveled downtown for the memorial ceremony at Ground Zero. She wanted to be as physically close to Brian as possible, but unlike most people who lose a spouse, she has no grave to visit; Ground Zero is the closest she can come. She left the kids behind and attended with a friend, but the ceremony was a disappointment. The thousands of mourners and spectators who showed up prevented her from nearing the footprint of the office building. The service did not feel personal.
A month after the attacks, Bram Murphy began attending a weekly support group of six September 11 widows. The women can talk freely and comfortably to one another, she says, even though they are not always going through the same emotions. The women face similar issues, particularly when it comes to their children. The four mothers in the group help one another with such trivial but emotionally charged details as making Father’s Day cards in school. And when some of Leila’s classmates learned that her father had died in the attacks and claimed, untruthfully, that their own fathers had been killed as well, the group could relate to Bram Murphy’s concern that her daughter, at such a young age, had to endure so much.
IN THE NATURAL COURSE OF HEALING there is no sudden transformation and no unqualified catharsis. There’s only gradual progress. “Sometimes change can only be recognized in retrospect,” says Therese Rando. “Sometimes it is so minute that it can’t be perceived until something else occurs to put it into sharp relief.”
For Judy Bram Murphy, Brian is most alive in their children, in Jessica’s thoughtfulness and Leila’s adventurous nature. Because of this, her daughters triggered a sadness in her during the first six months after the attacks. Gradually this sadness began to subside, and she is now able to cherish the memories her children evoke. “They bring life and spirit to my life,” she says.
She takes every opportunity to help her daughters remember their father. The three talk about him all the time, reminding one another of things he used to say and do. Sometimes the girls will say, “I miss him” or “I wish he were here.” Other times they will declare, “Daddy’s here watching my concert” or “Daddy’s proud of me” or even “Daddy’s eating all the butter on the table.”
“I’m not sure if I said it first or if they said it first,” she says, “but they feel he’s there all the time.” Bram Murphy takes comfort in that. She believes that such a sense helps the girls to feel safe and secure. “I don’t always feel his presence,” she adds, “but if I think about him, I feel he’s there in some spiritual way. He’s a part of me.” She chooses not to shield them from her own emotions, believing it important to show them that it is permissible to be sad and to cry. She shows them that the sadness passes.
She and her daughters have eased into a family routine that is much like their old one. They go to shows and museums in the city, just as they did when Brian was alive. They spend many summer weekends at her parents’ country home in Bedford, New York. During the school year, Bram Murphy drops off the girls at class every morning, just as she did before, and attends many of their field trips.
Last year Bram Murphy began a part-time postdoctoral program in psychoanalysis at New York University. The program provides intellectual and professional stimulation and gives her a sense of community similar to the one she derives from her support group. Meanwhile, her circle of friends has shifted slightly and naturally, just as it would for someone who becomes a parent or gets a divorce. She has cultivated new friendships, particularly with the women in her support group, deepened existing ones, and loosened the ties of a few others. She finds herself less drawn to socializing in groups and now prefers seeing her friends one-on-one. “We used to go out with couples,” she says. “That’s not fun for me.” She has developed a heightened connection to Brian’s family and a number of his closest friends. She relies more heavily on her parents for help with the children.
This summer Bram Murphy threw a party in Bedford for Jessica’s seventh birthday. “The parties are still hard for me,” she admits. She has become accustomed to Brian’s absence on special occasions and she adjusts to it, but it still hurts. A few weeks after the party, the girls’ day camp held a visiting day for parents. As has become typical for Bram Murphy at events like that, she found herself with a mix of emotions: happy, excited, and proud of her children; comforted that Brian was in some way present; sad and lonely that he was gone. “Those sorts of days,” she says, “are the most difficult—when both parents are supposed to be there.”
And so the grief continues, muted, often invisible, but nevertheless present. Grief has no clearly defined ending, explains Randall Marshall: “There’s no such thing as closure. Grief is a lifelong process.” Once in a while Bram Murphy wonders about her husband’s final moments—how much he knew, whether he suffered. “But it’s one of those things that is not helpful,” she says, “because I’ll never know.” Nor does she choose to worry about how long her daughters will have vivid memories of their father. “That does me no good,” she believes. “All I can do is help them to keep his memory alive. I can’t control what they’re going to remember.”
It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact of September 11 on the families of the victims. “Suppose you believe God protects the innocent,” says Therese Rando, who has consulted on the treatment of some September 11 widows. “What does it mean when God lets two planes go into the World Trade Center? Does it mean there is no God? Does it mean your husband was not innocent? Or do you believe in the basic goodness of people? What does the savage assault of September 11 do to that belief?”
Not a religious woman, Bram Murphy says she has become more spiritually aware over the past two years. She is more reliant on yoga, which she finds helps her to take in both the good and the bad with greater equanimity and peace. She spends less time worrying about the minor stresses of daily life, but on the other hand she worries more about death—that she will die or that people close to her will die. This summer, Leila became so ill that she did not eat for three days. The doctor was concerned. “I was more worried than I would have been before,” her mother says. Leila was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which was caught early enough to be treated. Over the past two years Bram Murphy says she has learned to live more in the present. “Brian and I looked to the future,” she says, “and our future didn’t happen together. I don’t do that anymore.”
As of midsummer, she had not yet decided how to mark the second anniversary of Brian’s death. She is less likely to return to Ground Zero, she says, than to attend a more intimate service, probably at Cantor Fitzgerald. “I don’t think I would work that day,” she says. “I’m sure it will be a difficult day.” Other difficult days are less predictable. “For the rest of my life Brian will be an important part of me and will always have an effect on what I do. So I never want to get over him. That wouldn’t be a goal. Nor would I want to get over any sadness I feel at his murder. At various times I will feel sadness and that’s a part of life. For I will miss him.”
Emily Gold Boutilier is the BAM’s senior writer. Judith Bram Murphy has set up a scholarship fund in her husband’s name at Williams College, P.O. Box 231, Williamstown, Mass. 01267, Attn. Diana Elvin.