The Leftovers, a new series that premiered on HBO in June, begins with a harrowing scene: in an instant, 2 percent of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes. One minute a baby is wailing in his car seat, the next minute he is silent, gone. A shopping cart with no one behind it rolls across a parking lot as unmanned cars collide in the street. Yet this show is not about the individuals who disappeared, it’s about those who remain. The plot speaks to the traumatic aftermath of bodies gone missing, especially in a Western society that values material evidence and scientific answers. How do people address the confusion, the panic, and the grief that result from this inexplicable event? How do they cope with an extreme situation of ambiguous loss and complicated mourning?
A work of speculative fiction, The Leftovers nonetheless speaks to the real-world experiences of many individuals who I’ve met over the course of my ethnographic fieldwork at the 9/11 Tribute Center. Tribute is a small memorial museum in Lower Manhattan where survivors, family members, and other people directly affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001, come to share their stories with visitors from around the world. Within this group of volunteers are hundreds of family members whose husbands, daughters, and nephews went to work that Tuesday like any other day, only to seemingly vanish into thin air. The impact of the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the eventual collapse of the buildings did not only kill individuals but, in many cases, completely destroyed their bodies. Nearly three thousand lives were taken at Ground Zero, but fewer than three hundred whole bodies were recovered from the site. Most of the remains that were returned to families came in the form of fragments—a shard of bone one month, a piece of a finger the next.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions; each family member I’ve met at Tribute has devised his or her own personal strategy for addressing the same existential quandaries.
According to mental health professionals who specialize in bereavement, many of our society’s established rituals for mourning center around the “clearly dead”: visible, whole bodies that a family can bury, cremate, or otherwise engage. Such ritual frameworks have little to offer to relatives whose loved ones’ remains are partial or absent. Consequentially, as psychologist Karen Seeley notes, situations of ambiguous loss “tend to delay mourning, complicate grief, rupture family ties, and engender chronic strain.”[iii] What alternative forms of ritualization are available to these families? Where can they go to visit the deceased and engage their memories? How can they forge new and viable paths forward in the face of this perpetual absence?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions; each family member I’ve met at Tribute has devised his or her own personal strategy for addressing the same existential quandaries. Some relatives held memorial services in the months after 9/11, burying empty caskets or interring personal memorabilia in place of a corpse. Other families turned to charitable activities, designing 9/11-based school curricula or new emergency response procedures in honor of their loved ones. More than a few individuals embraced behaviors that we commonly condemn as self-destructive—alcoholism or drugs, to name just two examples—when they could not find another outlet for their grief. As Anita Korsonsky, a volunteer whose sister, Jeanette Lafond-Menichino, was killed in the North Tower, told me, “When 9/11 occurred there really were no programs or systems available to help people who were living through such a tragedy. The strategies that were in place were for dealing with death in the more ‘general, typical’ occurrences—but not for a national tragedy of such epic proportions.”
In time, Anita has found some peace through her ritualized visits to the National September 11 Memorial, a site that is part of Tribute’s tour route. One July morning in 2013, I met Anita and Dina LaFond, her 88-year-old mother, at a café in Lower Manhattan for breakfast before joining them for their noon tour. Although the city was swollen with summer heat, Anita was eager to get out onto the memorial plaza. “Today is a special tour for us,” Anita told me. “It would have been my sister Jeanette’s 60th birthday. I like to leave little things for her when I visit the memorial, so today I made a birthday card that I’ll leave near her name.”
Too hot to eat much, the three of us sipped coffee as they told me about Jeanette, her love for New York City, and how much she enjoyed working at the World Trade Center. Anita and Dina also spoke about their own experiences after 9/11—their initial sense of isolation and grief, how it took years before they felt ready to visit Ground Zero, and what it meant to them to continue returning to the site today.
“My sister’s body was never recovered,” Anita told me. “So as far as I’m concerned, she still resides there. When I’m out on the plaza, I look into the sky and it’s as if I can see the 94th floor where Jeanette worked. It’s as if my sister is there, I feel her spirit so strongly. It’s like she’s next to me, or like I’m here to talk to this group of people and then she’s going to meet me for lunch. As if she’ll just come down the elevator. I can carry the memories of her with me wherever I go, but only when I come here do I feel her physical presence.”
Dina also spoke about how volunteering for tours at the site helped her fight the inclination to hole up in her apartment alone, and how she connected with visitors from around the world who always treated her with compassion and warmth. “What am I supposed to do, stay home and cry?” Dina asked. “There’s nobody there to dry my tears.”
An hour later, I stood on the memorial plaza near the North Pool with a group of tourists as Anita and Dina spoke about Jeanette. Anita laid her homemade birthday card at the foot of the memorial and kissed the bronze panel etched with Jeanette’s name. As the group moved on to the next stop on their route, I lingered behind the flock, unable to take my eyes off of that card, which seemed so fragile and lonely on the vast granite plaza. As I watched, a pair of young women who were not part of our group came over to snap a photo of the paper assemblage. Just as one of them crouched to inspect the card more closely, a breeze stirred and blew it a few feet away. One of the women hustled over to retrieve it, returned it to the base of the memorial, and tenderly placed small stones along its bottom edge to secure it in place.
New relationships are being forged between bodies, souls, places, objects and memories, relationships which open up fresh possibilities for the future.
Noticing that the guided tour was wrapping up, I hustled over to meet the group just as it began to disband. The visitors applauded briefly and many of them enveloped Anita and Dina in hugs as they returned their audio headsets. I thanked the two women for letting me be a part of their special tour, and they thanked me in turn for taking the time to come and hear about Jeanette. “If you’re ever out in Brooklyn, give me a call,” Dina told me. “I’ll take you to Coney Island for a hot dog.”
In their book, American Sacred Space, David Chidester and Edward Linenthal argue that memorials are sites at which “Americans can enact the ongoing ritual relations between the living and the dead.” Although this claim may not ring true for every family affected by 9/11, individuals like Anita and Dina have found that sites of remembrance—especially those that mark the place where a life ended—can serve as surrogate cemeteries when a loved one’s remains are missing or incomplete. Anita may not have a gravesite to visit, but she does have a physical space where she can go to leave offerings and maintain a relationship with Jeanette. In this sense, the memorial becomes a sort of axis mundi, a point of connection between heaven and earth.
Yet this memorial is doing more than simply connecting the living with the dead; other intersubjective relationships are also being generated and nurtured here. Anita and Dina are meeting strangers from around the world who welcome them back into the fold of social life after a period of intense pain and isolation. Visitors are caring for windswept birthday cards and other objects as a means of showing respect for the memory of the dead and also for the living who have been left behind. New relationships are being forged between bodies, souls, places, objects and memories, relationships which open up fresh possibilities for the future. If a desire to commemorate 9/11 is what draws people to this site as strangers, the bonds they establish through their encounters propel them forward into other places together—perhaps to a hot dog stand on Coney Island. In this sense, while the national memorial marks a place of deep trauma and loss, it has also become a place for a radical and creative bringing-forth of what is new and life-affirming.
Kate Yanina DeConinck is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School. She has been conducting ethnographic field research and interviews at sites of 9/11 remembrance in Lower Manhattan since early 2010.
 Paul Williams, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities (New York: Berg, 2007), 43.
 Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 49.
 Karen Seeley, Therapy After Terror: 9/11, Psychotherapists, and Mental Health (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 75.
 David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal, “Introduction” in American Sacred Space (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 4.
Image of the National September 11 Memorial courtesy of author.