This website does readability filtering of other pages. All styles, scripts, forms and ads are stripped. If you want your website excluded or have other feedback, use this form.

A NATION CHALLENGED: THE MOURNER; In a Landscape of Sadness, Offering Just Her Presence - The New York Times

Skip to contentSkip to site index New York
Log In Today’s Paper
New York|A NATION CHALLENGED: THE MOURNER; In a Landscape of Sadness, Offering Just Her Presence


Supported by


A NATION CHALLENGED: THE MOURNER; In a Landscape of Sadness, Offering Just Her Presence

By Shaila K. Dewan

  • Oct. 1, 2001
See the article in its original context from
October 1, 2001, Section B, Page 1Buy Reprints View on timesmachine TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.

At 8:30 one recent morning, Carol O'Neill sat in her Jeep Cherokee, wrapping the ends of her blond hair around fat blue curlers. She wore the same black knit suit with brass buttons that she had worn almost every day for two weeks. Beside her was a manila folder, containing a Post-it Note with neat cursive script reading ''Stacey McGowan, Grace Memorial Church, 10:30 a.m.,'' and directions from Huntington Bay, on Long Island, where Mrs. O'Neill lives, to Nyack, N.Y., where the church is.

Ms. McGowan was 38, the mother of two and a managing partner at Sandler O'Neill, the close-knit investment banking firm that Mrs. O'Neill's husband, Thomas F. O'Neill, helped found. She was also one of the 67 employees Sandler O'Neill lost from its work force of only 180.

When Mrs. O'Neill greeted the McGowan family, she knew there would be only one thing she could say. She has said it over and over. ''I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry.''

Mrs. O'Neill, 54, recognizes her relative good fortune. On Sept. 11, her husband was in Oregon on a business trip. Her immediate family, including three grown daughters, is intact. She is in the midst of planning a wedding for the eldest.

But the bridesmaids' dresses, which Mrs. O'Neill hoped to make herself, have gone unsewn. She, like so many others, has become a full-time mourner, a person who, unable to make things better, must concentrate on not making things worse. Each day she drives -- to Port Washington, to Manhattan, to Lattingtown, to Islip, to Darien, Conn. -- checking the digital compass above her rearview mirror. And each day she sits in sanctuaries where no matter which way she turns her head, she sees someone she knows who has lost someone else. Having nothing more substantial, she carries tissues. ''For the first time, I understand why a little thing like a handkerchief can be so important,'' she said.

Her first service was on Wednesday, Sept. 19, for Tom Collins, a bond salesman she had known for years. She has been to a service for her husband's 57-year-old partner, Herman S. Sandler, a Mass for her 22-year-old nephew, Peter O'Neill, and a service for John McDowell, 33, an equity salesman. She has attended services for people she has known for decades, and those for people she socialized with once or twice a year. She went to two on Saturday, one yesterday, and will attend at least one today. Memorial services are scheduled well into October.

But there is no abacus for this type of accounting. ''I'm not even adding it up, and you know why?'' Mrs. O'Neill asked, steering toward the Throgs Neck Expressway. ''I want every one of them to be the first. I don't want to be like, this is my 10th, this is my 12th.''

''The first time, I said, 'How can I feel this intensely 67 more times? Am I going to get worn out, and by the 65th one, will I just be drained of tears, immune to the horror of it?' However, I find that each one I go to, it gets worse. It doesn't get better, it gets worse. I would rather have it get worse each time than have gotten better.''

By trial, she has learned her limitations: three services in one day are too many. Two are manageable. Sometimes, she and her husband or daughters can go together. Other times, they must split up. At night, she distracts herself with her knitting, watching ''Friends'' or ''Will and Grace.'' She bakes an apple cake. She lulls herself to sleep with thoughts of her garden, where now the black-eyed Susans have lost their yellow petals and offer only black, budlike cores to the thinning autumn sun.

She has also learned not to rely on her usually sound sense of direction. Especially this morning, because she had stayed up much of the night before, worrying over a eulogy that her husband would deliver that evening at another service, for Judd Cavalier, a young man the O'Neills had known since he was 3.

She worried, too, over her husband, a man with ''a very soft side'' whose employees were, many of them, the same age as his children. His one escape, she said, is golf, but when he went to play last week, he saw the father of one of the partners who did not make it out. And when he read a draft of the eulogy, he broke down in tears. ''Speaking about business is a piece of cake,'' she said. ''This is very, very difficult for him.'' When the time came, she was at the lectern with him, her thin arm around his broad shoulders.

She was not surprised when, on the way to Nyack, she briefly got lost. ''It's almost like, psychologically, do I really want to get here?'' she said.

But she did get there. Early, but not early enough to get a seat in the overflowing church. And so she stood in the doorway, her hands unmanicured, her face unmade except for a bit of lipstick, her stockings with a tiny run inching out of the heel of her left shoe. There, she went into what she calls ''my place in my head.''

''For that one hour, I try to think of nothing else but that one family,'' she said. ''Because there are so many families. I try not to let thoughts of anyone else or anything else pop into my head. It would be so easy to daydream and try to escape it.''

Mrs. O'Neill is the type of woman who will offer a near-stranger a room for the night, or the use of her washing machine, but will barely acknowledge a thank you. She is the type of woman who, seeing her daughter take up smoking again at a close friend's funeral, will shrug.

Before all this, before her gracious house overlooking Huntington Bay became a hotel of sorts for grieving visitors, Mrs. O'Neill did not own the black suit with brass buttons. She spent Sunday mornings in her garden, not in church.

A former social worker, she got out her textbooks on death and loss after the attack, but found she could not open them. The catastrophe was too great; the books too academic. She knows about helplessness, inadequacy, ''survivor guilt,'' knows that rage is a stage of grief. But knowing that the landscape of sadness is littered with land mines does not help the person who travels through it.

''It's scary, the anger that comes with a loss could very easily be directed back at you,'' she said.

And so she feels her way cautiously, concerned that even her idea to plant a memorial garden of 67 rosebushes in her yard might strike some people as off key.

''I talked it over with my husband, that people might say, 'Fine, she can plant her roses but that's not going to bring my husband back,' '' she said, hinting, but not quite saying, that she had already encountered such feelings.

If she is discreet about others' grieving processes, she is frank about her own missteps. ''I have to stop myself from saying things like, 'I know what you're going through.' Or, 'It'll get better,' '' she said. ''You can tell by the response when you've said the wrong thing.''

After the attack, she recalled, she spoke to one of her daughters, Meredith, a kindergarten teacher. ''I said, 'We've just got to be strong for everyone else.' That's one thing I shouldn't have said, because I didn't realize that you just can't be that strong. Strong is -- you just can't even apply the word in this circumstance. You're trying to be a comforter. Strength is not what you need.''

In the past, she has watched younger people comfort their friends, and points to her daughters as role models. But as she started to give an example, her daughter Melanie, who has just finished medical school, interrupted from the back seat, worried that the family story is too personal.

''You're right, hon,'' Mrs. O'Neill said, instantly apologetic. ''I shouldn't say that.'' She started to sob, then just as quickly stopped. ''You know what it is,'' she said. ''I'm walking on eggshells. Around my kids, around my husband. Around everyone.''

At this point, any social worker would be asking Mrs. O'Neill about her own grief. And she would have an answer. ''A part of me does feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for myself that I have to watch people that I love go through this.''

At the service in Nyack, Mrs. O'Neill listened to Stacey McGowan described as someone who gave hugs ''that would render every other hug you received in your whole life an insult,'' as someone who brought out the best qualities in others. She listened to the priest talk about how the price paid for love is pain. She pressed a tissue to her face.

Back in the car, afterward, she wondered, as people do wonder at funerals, what would be said about her when she died. If anything good has come out so much death, she said, it was a renewed examination of life.

''We always joke about it, Melanie and I. We say, 'Oh my God, we're so rotten.' You walk out of church and you say, 'I'm going to be a better person. I'm going to be a better person.' ''

We are continually improving the quality of our text archives. Please send feedback, error reports, and suggestions to [email protected] A version of this article appears in print on , Section B, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: A NATION CHALLENGED: THE MOURNER; In a Landscape of Sadness, Offering Just Her Presence. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe