Where You Left Me

Where You Left Me - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 5

One woman’s riveting tale of grief, mourning, and the second chance at love she never could have predicted

Jennifer Gardner Trulson, a wife and mother living in New York City, was stricken by devastation on September 11, after her husband Doug, a financial broker who worked on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center, was killed in the terrorist attack. In this tragic yet optimistic memoir, we follow Jennifer’s journey of grieving as she struggles to rebound emotionally for her children and to remain connected with friends, relatives, and her Jewish faith. Ultimately, she is able to reestablish these bonds and, surprisingly, even to herself, falls in love again.

We often hear about people clinging to their faith after tragedy strikes, but you write about your struggle to stay connected with Judaism and how you put God on a “time-out” as you sorted through your pain. Can you explain?

Grief is the great leveler. Nothing can protect a person from the bone-crushing agony of the sudden and brutal loss of a beloved spouse. After suffering the greatest loss of my life, I understood why people turned to religion in times of crisis. It is the one thing that might explain the unexplainable, or at least provide a measure of comfort for those who have faith.

Though I am deeply Jewish, God was not an immediate source of comfort for me in the aftermath of the attacks. All I could think about was keeping it together for my two small children (Michael was 4 and Julia was 2) who were never going to know their father. I never lost my faith, but it certainly took a pummeling. I wasn’t convinced that God played a decisive role in the murder of three thousand people, but I also couldn’t bring myself to let him off the hook entirely. Since I didn’t have the answers, and pursuing them required an emotional stability I didn’t possess, I decided to put God on a time-out. Retreating to neutral corners wasn’t a rejection, it was a regrouping. I thought it best to let the anger, fear, and overwhelming emotions settle before attempting to negotiate a détente.

You talk about pushing God and prayer away after 9/11 because you did not want to be silent or meditative. Did you feel pressure from others to return to religious prayers?

I never felt any pressure at all. Not a single friend, family member, or clergy person ever suggested to me that I needed to turn to prayer for healing. In the immediate aftermath, there was nothing to be gained by my being alone with my thoughts. Solitary, contemplative moments jeopardized my fragile composure; they conjured only horrific thoughts of Doug’s last moments and the fear of what lay ahead for our family without him. I didn’t have the capacity to focus on anything outside of our pain during quiet moments. So, I tried to distract myself with endless physical tasks. Errands, answering mail, coffee with friends, taking my children to the playground&#8212all helped move the clock forward to the end of each excruciating day. Meditation, yoga, or religious prayer served only to intensify the emptiness.

You talk frankly about the fact that it was hard to be around Jewish rituals and holidays because they had so many associations to your time with Doug; your kids went to a synagogue nursery school, you were involved in the JCC, you hosted Passover, etc. What ultimately helped you find your way back to the rituals?

Doug was murdered just before the start of the High Holiday season. That my gentle, ethical, deeply kind husband was not inscribed in the Book of Life decimated my desire to participate in religious rituals. I didn’t blame God for Doug’s death, but I just couldn’t sit in a congregation and chant the prayers that, at the time, rang hollow. And, when I did light the Chanukah candles or participate in the Seder, I simply went through the motions without feeling.

That all started to change when my children began attending Hebrew school. I was forced to find a way to re-establish a connection with Judaism because I didn’t want my unease to influence my children’s introduction to their heritage. For a long time I participated with the kids without any spiritual connection, but the numbness ended when my son, Michael, started to prepare for his bar mitzvah. I didn’t want to go through the motions; I wanted to be emotionally present and participate with the authentic enthusiasm and energy that Michael deserved. While working with my son on his service, I was able to draw upon untainted memories of happier times in synagogue when I was his age preparing for my bat mitzvah. I still could recite the aliyot from memory and relished helping him learn to do the same. The ritual of our practicing the trope and interpreting his Torah portion slowly began to heal the rift and opened my heart again to Judaism’s traditions. Michael’s bar mitzvah was fully joyous, and, for the first time in years, I felt embraced by a synagogue service. We celebrated Julia’s bat mitzvah this past December, and once again we were all completely in the moment.

One of the responses from other people that angered you was “Everything happens for a reason.” Given how often people say this after a tragedy, can you explain what made it painful for you to hear this?

In the days following the attacks, good-hearted people would try to comfort me with the repeated platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God only gives you what you can handle.” The news media featured countless interviews with survivors who nearly all attributed their survival to “God must have been with me that day.” Really, how was that helpful? I know people’s intentions were kind, but the words pierce me even today. Was God not with Doug? What reason could there have been to separate him from the family he adored? Was the speaker telling me that, had I been a weaker person, Doug would have survived?

Though I am no expert in the ways of God, my personal faith tells me that He gave us free will, and we enjoy the freedom and suffer the consequences of that gift. Clearly, the terrorists were exercising their free will when they flew into the towers, even though Al Qaeda would have us believe their actions were manifestations of God’s will. I know many will disagree, but I just don’t believe that things happen for a reason. I think bad things happen, and we are left to decide how to respond. But, of course, I don’t know that for certain. I clearly don’t have the answers and continue to wrestle with my own convictions even as I respond to this question.

If God is anywhere, you say, He is in the healing. Can you explain why?

We may be helpless to stop bad things from happening, but perhaps God leaves us signs and road maps to help us recover and reconnect, provided we know where to look. I have to believe that God is in the healing—not in the form of a great light or heavenly vision, but in the small acts of kindness done by others, which help us remember that life is good despite the heartaches. My friends and family never wavered in their support, and the humanity, commitment, and grit of the New York community excavated all of our spirits from the rubble. For me, God is the source of these lifelines, our precious connections to each other. Without them, I never would have been able to move forward.

In the book, you say you met your now-husband Derek at “the wrong time.” How could it be the wrong time if you fell in love with a loving and supportive partner who gives you freedom to miss Doug?

I met Derek ten months after the 9/11 attacks. No time really had passed since Doug’s death, and I was still reeling. It took all of my strength to maintain a façade of competence for my children; a relationship was not anywhere on the to-do list. I knew Doug had loved me enough to last a lifetime. Even after he was gone, I felt truly lucky that I had him even for the short time we were together. I decided that I would stay in New York surrounded by supportive friends and try to raise our children to be everything they should have been had Doug lived. A second chance at love wasn’t a consideration because there could not be any actual happiness when the person who made me real was gone. My life, however, seems to be the epitome of the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Derek and I met when he inadvertently stepped on my foot at a restaurant where I had been eating with the friends to whom I had been surgically attached since the attacks. Clearly, I was in no shape to meet a stranger, let alone start a relationship. But I think that is why it worked. Derek saw the emotional wreckage from the beginning and participated in the arduous healing process. I didn’t have to explain to a dinner date years later how awful it was when Doug died, how intensely we suffered. Derek witnessed all of it in real time and didn’t flinch. Instead he has helped us carry Doug’s loss by giving the kids and me the freedom and encouragement to talk and remember. I know how lucky my children and I are that Derek found us. He gave us the miracle of a second chance, one which probably would not have been possible if we’d met at a later time.

What question do you wish I would ask you about this book, and what is the answer?

If I could leave the reader with anything, I would say that I certainly do not have a monopoly on pain and loss, but I think that all Americans felt connected to the 9/11 attacks and the grieving and recovery that followed. I hope that my story will inspire others to extend themselves to those who are suffering, even if they feel awkward or don’t know what to say. A sympathetic ear, a bag of groceries, an unexpected email—each can profoundly change the course of a mourner’s otherwise unbearable day. Mostly, I would like a reader to know that one doesn’t have to shut the door on the past in order to move forward. We hear all the time that we should find “closure” and “move on.” I don’t think we move on; I think we simply continue to move through a loss like this and learn to live again. I’ve never looked for closure, not only because it doesn’t exist, but also because I want Doug’s memory to sting, to remind me that he existed and mattered. It’s the only way I can give him to my children and love Derek with the full and open heart he deserves. I have to believe that you can live a fully present life, carry your loss, and somehow joy will find you.

About the Author

Jennifer Gardner TrulsonJennifer Gardner Trulson
Jennifer Gardner Trulson, author of Where You Left Me (Gallery Books, 2011), is the founder of the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children in New York. She graduated from Tufts University and received a JD from Harvard. She lives with her husband and two children in Manhattan. A portion of the proceeds from her book will go to the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation.

One Comment

  1. Stefanie Wolf July 24, 2014 Reply

    Kol hakavod Jennifer! You are a light unto others and your strength is an inspiration. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to know you, your kids and Derek and also to know that the sincerity in which you live and also honor Doug’s memory knows no boundaries. Your book is a well written account of your loss and how you continued to move forward and make a wonderful life for your children in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on America and the ensuing deep personal tragedy experienced by the murder of your husband.
    I wish I had the opportunity to meet and know Doug and in some respect Infeel as though I did know him from all of you. After PV I came to the city and was truly touched with emotion when I visited the memorial and saw his name engraved.
    Again I admire your strength and appreciate your openness in sharing your story…may Doug’s memory be a blessing.

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