September 11, 2001 was a national tragedy. It was also a personal tragedy for the friends and families of the nearly 3,000 men, women, and children who died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93.
Meigan Kelly is a wife, mother, and the younger sister of Bill Kelly, Jr., who died on September 11, 2001 in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Today, Meigan shares with us her experience of that day; how she grieved in the days, months, and years after Bill’s death; and how 9/11 shaped the person she is today.
Can you tell us about your brother Bill?
Sure—Bill was a regular American guy. He was very kind-hearted, generous of spirit, funny, easy going, happy. He always sought out the underdog and brought them under his wing. He was someone who could get along with anybody; he was well liked by everyone. He loved the bars, the beach, the bay. He was the only boy in our family with four sisters—so he was very well loved, adored even, and treated like a prince by all of us. My parents had three daughters all one year apart and then eight years later Bill was born. I’m a year younger than Bill, and I was conceived to be his friend and playmate. I was supposed to be Matthew, but I came out Meigan.
Were you friends?
We were very close. We had gone to the same grade school, high school, and college. We worked together for ten years; we had the same friends. We were very interwined. We were best friends, especially in our twenties. We were part of each other’s daily lives.
Can you tell us about the day your family lost him?
Bill was working for Bloomberg Tradebook LLP in Manhattan. He wasn’t working in the World Trade Center. But on Monday, the day before, he had volunteered to go to a one-day conference at the World Trade Center. The conference was being held at the Windows on the World restaurant, which was on the top floor of Tower 1. We even have pictures of Bill at that conference. There was a photographer there photographing the conference who had left by like 8 a.m. that morning, less than an hour before the attack.
No one in our family knew he was there. If you remember, it was a gorgeous, warm September day. My dad was at work, my mom was at home, my sisters and I were all either working or at home taking care of young children. Bill’s best friend called my mom to say he had gone to the World Trade Center that morning for a conference. And one by one, we all got the call from my dad. My dad and I were both working in the Philadelphia area so he came to pick me up at work, and we drove an hour and a half together to our mom who was at our family home on Long Beach Island.
On that long car ride from Philadelphia to LBI, I received a call from one of Bill’s friends from work. Bill had texted them at work, letting them know, he could hear the firemen coming; then, that the firemen were almost there. And the friend was updating me with that. I asked which floor was the conference on? The friend answered: the top floor. When I got off the phone, my dad asked me in the car, “What did he say? Which floor is Bill on?” I told my dad, “His friend said he didn’t know.”
My heart was breaking because I knew then that that whole building fell, and I just couldn’t tell my dad Bill was on the top floor. By the time we reached my mom, the house was already filled with people. We have a lot of extended family and many dear family friends who were already there. One of my other sisters came down, and my other two sisters went looking for Bill in the New York City hospitals for the next two days.
Even though this day was a horror, we still had hope he was alive. There was so much confusion and chaos and non-information. A lot of the cell-phone towers were overwhelmed, so nobody could get through. But every time the phone rang, I ran to it thinking it would be Billy finally calling us. But as the day wore on, the glimmer of hope began to extinguish. I remember going to watch the sunset, and I just prayed, prayed, prayed.
That night we were all up so late. I fell asleep on the front porch the night of 9/11. At around 5:30 in the morning, my dad came in and woke me up. I remember waking up to the most awful, gut wrenching feeling I have ever experienced. It was now the morning of September 12, but we still had no word from Bill. I would say it was then, that I knew with certainty that he was dead. But no one else was ready to believe he was dead.
Mike Bloomberg, then CEO of Bloomberg, the company Bill worked for, sent a company car down to pick up my parents, sister, and brother-in-law to drive them to New York City so they could meet up with my other two sisters and search the hospitals and hand out fliers with Bill’s picture. I didn’t go. I couldn’t go. I felt confident he was already gone. I stayed behind with extended family and friends and waited and cried and found intermittent peace up on the beach. When everyone came home that night, I think the hope was extinguished a little more, but some family held out hope for a couple of weeks.
Did your family ever recover Bill’s remains? How did you decide when to have a funeral or memorial?
No. There’s an amount of time that a person can live without food or water. We waited until that time had passed, and then we had Bill’s memorial service on September 30. There were about 2,500 people there; we have a very large family and we’re all big community citizens. Mike Bloomberg came. It was a beautiful event to celebrate his life.
9/11 was a national tragedy; but for you and your family it was also a personal tragedy. What was it like to experience those both at the same time? To have such a personal loss also be first news and now history?
It’s complicated. The entire experience was incredibly personal but equally not personal. They’re just intrinsically entwined, yet so drastically separate at the same time. To be honest, I never felt the emotional effects of the national tragedy because I barely had enough emotional energy to deal with the personal tragedy. I couldn’t watch TV for years, I could not look at a newspaper for years, I could not even bear my families hurt and pain then or even now. I did not personally know of anyone else who lost their life in the 9/11 attacks, so that did not affect me. Bill was there with one other colleague, but I didn’t know that colleague.
But I would say that the unwavering support and love that I and my entire family received over the months, years, and even today from so many people is both because of their love for Bill and our family, but also because the nature of 9/11. Because it was a personal experience for most Americans even if they knew no one in the Towers; it really brought America together and solidified the country. I feel like every American was hurt and injured by the tragedy. So that made it personal for all of them. I would say that much of the continued good that has stemmed from my family’s efforts is because 9/11 and Bill’s death was a national tragedy.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross made famous the idea of stages of grief, which can give the idea of a linear path out of grief. How did (and do) you experience grief for your brother?
My grief did begin immediately. Some family continued to hold out hope that Bill was alive for two weeks as the rubble was being sorted. But I purposely did not hold out hope—I just couldn’t. Because I would have had to experience the fall of reality all over again. So, grief became a kind of self-preservation from day one. I became, numb, lost, and not in control of what was physiologically happening to my body. I remember not wanting to live; I didn’t see a path forward, but I didn’t want to die either.
I felt very lost and confused, especially about where Bill was. Up until that point, I had always believed in heaven. I knew without question my grandparents were in heaven; my dearest Aunt Mildred was in heaven, but Bill? I became really confused on this one. We didn’t recover his body, we had no evidence of his death—not then, not now. So, I was like, “Where is he?” By the end of September, I went to a Franciscan friar and asked him to explain heaven to me like I was in Kindergarten. I told him I didn’t know where Bill was, and it was so unsettling. His answer was simple and perfect. He said, “Bill went home.” I said, “Home? No! No way. Bill’s home is right down the street, and he is not there.” He said, “No, Bill went home to where he was before he was born. He went home to heaven.” And somehow this clicked for me and became my life preserver. Bill was in fact home.
Other facets of my grief: two fascinating things happened to me. First, I became incredibly depressed. I lost 20 pounds in two months and was not even trying to lose weight. Food just did not interest me. I remember times when I was on the couch all day every day, and I would say to myself, “Meigan—get up! Get up off this couch.” But I literally, physically could not make myself get up. I just couldn’t. But I am grateful for this experience because now I have deep compassion for those who suffer from depression.
The second incredible thing that happened was I suffered from hypervigilance, a form of post traumatic syndrome. All of my senses were heightened, on ultra high alert because my body went into survival mode thinking it was being attacked. I needed dim lights inside the house. When the house phone rang, it was the shrillest noise to my ears. So, I basically hid in my bedroom for two to three months because anything else assaulted my senses and was too much for me to take in. I also did not sleep for more than two hours a night until the following June.
My five stages of grief were not linear at all. I went from numb to depressed and never felt anger. I was never angry at the terrorists. I was never angry at our government for any action or inaction taken. But a few years after Billy’s death, anger began to seep out at other people and for other reasons.
I felt like I had become an island in my family. I mentioned that Bill and I were a year apart in age from each other and 8 to 10 years younger than our siblings and that he and I were incredibly close. Before Bill’s death, I didn’t realize how much of my identity within my entire family unit was rooted in my relationship with him. Once he was gone, I tried to replace our relationship with relationships with my older sisters. I love them, and we’re friends, but it was not the same. History could not repeat itself; they were all married and had children. That was when the anger finally came in, about three years after Bills death. Usually anger comes after feeling numb. But mine was delayed. It was unwarranted and misplaced anger at my siblings for no good reason, other than that they just weren’t Bill.
Even 19 years later, there’s a part of me that’s still grieving. I live a great life; I’ve moved on. But I still have a broken heart over the loss of him. I’ve been gifted with an amazing husband and three healthy children, and the rest of my immediate primary family is still living, and we are all close knit as a whole family, but I am constantly haunted by a sense that something vital and essential is missing from my life. It’s hard to describe, but a part of my actual being died on 9/11. It’s like I lost something paramount within me, and I am always spinning and searching to find it, but it never seems to be within my grasp.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of Post Traumatic Stress; but there’s also the phenomena of post-traumatic growth. Can you talk about how 9/11 shaped you?
Here’s a concrete example of how I changed: I was always a woman who wanted to be married and have a lot of children. When one of my sisters got married, she didn’t take her husband’s name. I was aghast, “I would never not take my husband’s name!” But I met my husband after 9/11, and everything about my life had changed because of 9/11. Where I lived, my job, my whole family changed, my personality changed. Everything about me changed except my name. So, I did not take my husband’s name.
Losing Billy also shaped me in many beautiful and wonderful ways. It gave me grit and perseverance and determination to use my traumatic past to create a better future. I had this immense spiritual growth. I came to know God instead of just knowing about him.
Billy’s death spurned a true need for God in me and a need for a future beyond this life, like heaven. And that true need for God turned into a relationship with God. And that relationship turned into pure love for God. And this love turned into a calling to serve people around me and bring them closer to God, and a few years ago I started a nonprofit called Growing Catholics whose mission is to help others come to know God personally. Bill’s death led me to discover what my natural God-given gifts were and how I was born to use them to build up our communities, our culture, our youth, our families. My natural gifts are leadership and administration. As I look back, I always knew that about myself. But when I realized they were given to me specifically, I realized, I can’t not use them.
There are other ways Billy’s death shaped me. I feel like I live with this secret knowledge of how precious life is because I know how close death is and how quick it can be. So, I feel like I have shed the fear of death; I’ve conquered anger by the grace of God; I’ve overcome anxiety and worry through prayer. I live life more fully, with the greatest passion and fervor because I know what life is worth. When thinking back on life after 9/11, I’ll always remember of course the heartache, but also how the country came together! In today’s society, which is so divided right now, people need to remember that feeling of how we came together.
Have there been standout moments of healing or steps toward healing for you?
Yes. I can remember the first time I went to see a counselor. It was in September. My body was in overload. I felt like I was almost coming out of my body. So, my mom got me a counselor. I can remember driving to his office, where we were on the parkway. And I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to go on; I can’t go on.” But I didn’t feel suicidal. I didn’t want to live, but I didn’t want to die either. And as I was thinking this in the car, I felt a hand grab me. Like someone put their hand on my arm as I was holding the steering wheel. That was an incredibly powerful moment. Because I do feel like it was God reaching down, telling me, “You’re going to be okay. I’ve got you; it’s all okay.” It was very healing.
We’ve all also found signs in which we see Bill. For example, Bill was a huge sailor. And I had a longstanding habit of going up to the beach any time I had a heart ache or was in need of peace. Long Beach Island is a straight island; you can see endlessly to the left and right, and anytime I would walk up there in need of peace, I would look on the horizon and see a single sailboat, with no other boat on the horizon. And when I say this has happened like a thousand times since 9/11, I don’t exaggerate. Even this summer, we were on the beach talking and talking about Bill, and we look out on the ocean and there’s a single sailboat. So the single sailboat is a sign for me.
Another large part of my healing was going to a counselor for family members of murder victims. That was very powerful because he was the only one who got me and didn’t make me feel crazy for my feelings.
Other healing moments would include using my talents and gifts. I don’t draw a salary. I work endless hours, but I love doing it; I love serving others, to give them what I found—which is finding God and trusting him unequivocally.
What are some of the ways that friends and family have supported you best after Bill’s death?
Pure and genuine love. It came in many forms and from many, many people. It was authentic and real and comforting. Feeling pure love from others is just greatly comforting. I grieved differently than most. I wanted and needed to be alone. Where the rest of my family wanted to come together, I had to process all that was happening alone just to keep myself mentally well. So, cards for me helped the most. I could read them alone and when I felt capable.
My immediate family—we could not help one another. None of us could grieve to one another. The grief was too strong, too hard on all of us. So, each of us turned to friends and counselors to grieve. Several of my best friends and my future husband became my lifelines to survival, my network of support.
The way people support me best now is by keeping Bill’s memory alive. For example, we host an annual memorial golf tournament in Bill’s honor. It is a gathering of about 400 friends and family members. Another way we continue to support a life well lived is on Bill’s birthday; we always celebrate as a family with his favorite dinner, a pint of Guinness, and angel food cake.
What was not helpful?
The only thing I remember not liking was pity in people’s eyes for months after. The most helpful thing for me was silent hugs. My husband would just hold my hand and let me cry. He would not say one word to make me feel better. He would just be solid, secure, and silent. That was so helpful to get me through the most difficult moments and even now!
What are some of the other ways you keep your brother’s memory alive and make him a part of your family life?
The great thing about our family is that we just talk about Bill naturally. For example, one of my daughter’s has his hair, so I’ll say, “Oh you got Uncle Billy’s gorgeous hair.” Or they’ll say something, and I’ll say, “That’s exactly what Uncle Billy would say.” So, he just comes up naturally. His picture also hangs right over my kitchen sink.
We also remember him on 9/11. Each year on 9/11 we celebrate Mass in my parents’ house and have like fifty people come. It’s such a celebration of life.
Do you have any words of advice for others who have experienced the unexpected death of a loved one?
You have to surround yourself with a huge network of people who love you, and that has to last for several years, at a minimum. You have to advocate for yourself, to reach out and let people know that you need them, that you don’t like being alone, or that you want to be alone, whatever it may be. Seek professional help. And find God. Don’t try to hold in grief or beat grief. You have to live through grief. And the only thing that’s really going to help you live through your grief is time. Time heals the most.
We all have questions we would like others to ask us but that are left unsaid. What question do you wish friends would ask you and how would you answer?
I cannot think of any questions I wish others asked me. But something that might surprise people is that there’s a lot of good that my family is part of that stems from 9/11. Each of us began our own non-profits to help serve humanity.
My father Bill, mother JoAnne, and two sisters Casey and Mimi have hosted the Bill Kelly Jr. Memorial Golf Tournament for 19 years, raising over a million dollars in endowed scholarship money for students in need at the University of Scranton, Bill’s Alma Mater. There have been 31 Bill Kelly Jr. scholars to date. My oldest sister Colleen founded a free health clinic for the impoverished in Harlem named the Ita Ford/Bill Kelly Jr. Health Team. Colleen also took the lead in launching Peaceful Tomorrows, which aims to develop and advocate nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, in the hope that this will help break what many 9/11 families see as the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism. My father was also one of the founders of the Garden of Reflection, the official Pennsylvania memorial for victims of the 9/11 attack.
We’ve done a lot as one family in the wake of 9/11. We are very fortunate that we were all well-loved after 9/11 and loved each other deeply. And I think we all realized the preciousness of life, and that spurred each of us to want to do more, to want to make the world a better place. I know that’s a cliché, I wish I could think of a better way to say it, but to serve humanity. Because it was pure evil on 9/11, and we’re not going to let evil rule us. It didn’t destroy us, it made us better people, and I feel like through our efforts we’re helping to make others better.
Here at Verily, we love our Daily Doses—quotes or phrases that remind us that the world needs more of who we are. Do you have a mantra or phrase that helps you to have hope in the hard days?
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
That gives rest to my soul on the hard days. A phrase I live by daily is by Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”