Time Ebbs Away at the Grief for a Sept. 11 NYPD Widow

Today, as her husband’s name echoes across Ground Zero, Maggie McDonnell will close a circle of mourning with a memorial at a church in Wantagh, N.Y.

Her husband, Brian, was a New York City police officer who died five years ago in the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. His remains were never found.

“I don’t want it to be where people are crying and once again saying they’re so sorry for my loss,” said Maggie, 43, and the mother of Katie and Thomas. “What I really hope is that people realize he is in a safe place, and thanks to him and the people he knew and the choices he made, he left us, but left us well taken care of.”

Though her life forever changed in an instant, time did not stand still for Maggie McDonnell.

The sun has risen 1,826 times since Sept. 11, 2001, and with each new day, the epic struggles and mundane tasks have slowly chipped away at her grief.

“The bad times I can handle, I’ve been through that,” she said. “But nobody told you, there’s no practice on how to celebrate the good times by yourself.”

It’s those moments, when her children ace a test or star in a play, when she longs for the only other person who could have shared the boundless pride she has for them.

“I can see a Kodak commercial and I wonder when my daughter gets married, who’s going to walk her down the aisle?” she said. “Yes, she has tons of uncles, but whoa, won’t I be a basket case that day? For me to think about it now upsets me. I can’t imagine what it will be like then.”

Empty Handed

Brian McDonnell joined the elite Emergency Service Unit of the New York Police Department relatively late in his police career, and just 10 months before the Sept. 11 attacks.

“That was his dream come true,” Maggie said.

While the unit is known for responding to train crashes and bridge jumpers, Brian, with his big smile, was better known for a kitten rescue.

On Sept. 10, he slept in a cot at the Gramercy Park station house, calling Maggie to check in; Thomas was to begin preschool the next day. He was last seen rushing into the South Tower on the morning of Sept. 11.

In all, the Emergency Service Unit lost 14 men; the NYPD lost a total of 23.

“When this happened, it was just a complete magnification of a lot of the stuff that we were always called to do,” said John Lambkin, a retired police sergeant who worked with McDonnell.

Maggie spent the night of Sept. 11 and the days after waiting at police headquarters for news of her missing husband. His fellow officers, Lambkin included, spent their days combing through the rubble, looking for survivors.

“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them to come back empty handed. I think that’s not what they wanted to do,” Maggie said. “They said to me, ‘We’re not going to stop until we find something,’ but unfortunately with Brian, nothing, absolutely nothing was found.”

Lambkin and the other members of the Emergency Service Unit worked 12 to 15 hour days for eight months, clearing the World Trade Center site looking for those men that had disappeared.

“I give the families a lot more credit because they didn’t have anything to do but to wait, and I think that takes probably even more of a toll than what we were doing,” Lambkin said.

After 30 days without word, Maggie chose to have a memorial service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where she and Brian had married in 1989.

She grappled with how to explain it all to her children, then 8 and 3 years old.

“How do I explain to them that there is no grave site? And if there isn’t, then why? And I didn’t even know the answer to that,” she said. “How do I explain to children where he is if I myself didn’t know?

“I’ve always explained to them that most of the time God takes just the spirit and this time he took everything,” she said. “And I’ve never told them that it was definite because in time and with science, I’m assuming that can always change.”

Pine-Sol Tears

In the months following Sept. 11, Maggie found herself living out her grief very publicly.

“You couldn’t deal with it because you were always on," she said. "There were always people bringing food to your door. I was almost somehow robotic saying ‘You know I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ … When everybody went away, you have that peace and quiet and then it hits you.”

It was only then that she could come to grips with the loss.

“Although I told everybody else ‘Yeah, he’s gone,’ for a very long time I didn’t believe it myself,” she said. “I kept thinking ‘Well, he’s such a proud person, maybe something happened to him, maybe he has amnesia and he’s living somewhere else.'”

Her children, she said, helped her focus on the future. She began to do the things she and Brian had dreamed about. She took her children to Disney World; they ended up having fun.

Her family had grown to include dozens of police officers, her husband’s colleagues, who became part of her extended family. She still takes her children down to the station house where they can see Brian’s locker, left empty as a tribute. The officers even boxed his belongings for her.

She chose to open the box on a day she was alone and was hit with a familiar smell: Pine-Sol, used by the officers to clean the station.

“That was a scent that I remembered from visiting him at work and the kids knew,” she said. “As crazy as it sounds, I can’t stand the smell of Pine-Sol, but when I opened the box it was comforting.”

She laughed through the tears that day.

“Here I expected to smell his cologne or aftershave or something like that or soap. And instead I smelled Pine-Sol. It was happy tears, though.”

Moving On

It’s been five years since Maggie's husband vanished. Five years of birthdays, anniversaries and learning to cope with the loss.

Maggie has woven her husband’s memory into her family's post-Sept. 11 existence. In good times and in bad, she reminds her children of what their father would think of their accomplishments.

Maggie stopped attending the Ground Zero memorials a year ago when she realized it was keeping her from her children, who had refused to attend.

“When I go down there it’s very sad, it’s extremely sad,” she said. “Many people look at that as a resting place. I don’t. I can’t. I don’t think I could go on if I thought that that’s where my husband was, at a building.”

Lambkin, who retired from the force in 2002, has moved on from that day of horror and its aftermath.

“It’s really kind of strange because you’ve lived through such a huge event in the course of history that you were part of it and part of it in a really personal way,” he said. “At times it feels almost like an out-of-body experience, like was I really? I was. I was really there.”

As Maggie remembers her husband Monday, she’ll also begin a new phase of her life. In December, she became engaged to a childhood friend she reconnected with at a grade-school reunion. With her children's blessing, she made the decision to remarry.

“I don’t believe in a life of mourning,” she said. “It would make [my children] sad, and it’s not what [my husband] was all about. I know him. He was just not that kind of person. I think the happier that we are, the happier he would be.”