9/11 hijacking victim's family expanded, even without him
Lives Changed: A decade-long series of profiles of those most directly affected by the 9/11 attacks.
The Mladenik family has adopted two children since 9/11. Even they miss their dad, who died in the hijacking of American Airlines flight 11 before they arrived.
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These days, the only shrine is a basement wall devoted to photos of Jeff, posters of the twin towers, and other mementos.Skip to next paragraph
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As one friend puts it, there's a new "solidness" to Sue. Nine years ago, she was desperate to bury Jeff and have a place to visit him; after five pieces of his body were identified in the rubble, she got that chance, and with it, a certain calm. In the past few years, it has become thinkable for her to date, maybe even to remarry someday.
Channeling energy into shared causes
She says she feels less angry at God, and less angry in general. Though 97 percent of victims' families took part in the federal 9/11 compensation fund, Sue refused. After Jeff's death, she fought battle after battle in his memory: one against American Airlines, another against the city of New York for the handling of victims' remains in the cleanup after the attack. More recently, she has channeled that energy into causes for which she and Jeff shared a passion.
For "the big kids," as Sue calls her and Jeff's three biological children, it's easier to keep his memory alive because they grew up with him. Today, Kelly, 31, and Josh, 28, both live nearby. Sue sees them often, and talks or texts daily with Daniel, 26, in Colorado. All three struggled in the years after Jeff's death: Daniel with explosive anger, Kelly with addiction, and Josh by withdrawing. Sue says all three are on a surer footing now: all are working, Kelly and Dan both recently finished college, and Josh is married and has a 2-year-old daughter on whom the whole family dotes.
But Sue says the pain of Jeff's absence is especially acute at her kids' milestones. She spent much of Josh's 2009 wedding reception in the bathroom after overdoing it with champagne.
Friends and family were surprised when Sue continued adding toddlers to the family while her older kids were flailing. Some questioned the wisdom of channeling her grief that way. Her mother-in-law asked, "Are you crazy?"
"I'll grant you, it's probably not something I would have done, but that is how they responded to grief and pain. Sue decided 'I'm going to give. I'm going to give one more time,' " says Bill Cirignani, a friend from Christ Church of Oak Brook, the 5,000-member evangelical congregation where Jeff taught marriage classes. "While I suspect her pursuit of those children was a form of medication for the pain, they succeeded in that – not in a manipulative way, but because it allowed the family to invest their hearts and souls into these three beings who needed them."
"It raises lots of questions," Mr. Cirignani says. "But God is interesting in these ways."
For the youngest girls, Hannah and Bethany, who never met Jeff, Sue says it's a delicate balance, trying to foster their sense of connection to him without making them too sad.
"I try to follow their lead," she says, and cry with them when they need to. "They grieve deeply for somebody they never met. But I don't think that's a bad thing, because he's their father."
Watching her dad die in news clips
Apart from two close friends, Grace doesn't tell people at school how her dad died. So it was a shock, in seventh grade, when a social studies teacher pulled her aside and said, "We're watching a video on 9/11 tomorrow. Are you OK with that?"
"I guess," said Grace. The next day, she sat with her head on her desk as the rest of the class watched her father die.