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Canada's 9/11 Families Spent Last Decade Learning How To Live With Loss

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CANADA 911 VICTIMS FAMILIES CARTER
Abigail Carter, with children Olivia and Carter, touches her husband's name during an unveiling of a plaque honouring Canada's 9/11 victims in Ottawa on Sept. 15, 2002. "When you have a loss that happens really close to you it sort of awakens you, you sort of lose your fear of death a little bit," she said recently. (CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward) | CP File

TORONTO - The pain can still ambush them at an unexpected moment, the love for those taken is ever strong, but life has gone on.

For many who lost family in the 9/11 attacks, continuing after a terrible loss is a work in progress — particularly as their grief gets dragged into the global spotlight every September — but it's one devoid of self pity.

Rather than letting their love for those killed hold them back, they've spent the last decade distilling the positives from the pain and finding new strength in the process.

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Loretta Filipov's husband Alexander was on American Airlines Flight 11 when it hit the World Trade Center. Ten years later, she's hoping people will focus on his life, rather than the tragedy of his death.

"I'm not going to go stand in public and cry; I'm not going to say, 'Oh, poor me,'" the 74-year-old Filipov said in an interview. "My life changed and it will never be the same. But I'm moving forward every day."

Alexander Filipov was an electrical engineer who grew up in Canada and became a U.S. citizen in the 1960s. The 70-year-old father of three had been living with his wife in Concord, Mass., for 44 years when he was killed just days before their wedding anniversary.

"I thought my world was over," his wife said of the first few days following the tragedy.

"But after the shock and the awe of it all, we decided two things: we weren't going to be afraid of anything and we certainly didn't want a war to start and kill more people."

Filipov established the Al Filipov Peace and Justice Forum in her husband's memory, held around the 9/11 anniversary every year, and later joined September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization advocating non-violence.

"They were all my best friends that I never wanted to know," she said of those she met. "You could go through life being angry and revengeful or you could do something good, and I chose the latter."

Ten years on, Filipov wants people to know she's just like any other widow.

"When you lose a loved one, the pain is the same, no matter when or who — the only difference was that ours was very public," she said. "I don't want to be a victim anymore."

Abigail Carter understands. She's spent the last few years convincing people she's made peace with the loss of her husband.

"When you have a loss that happens really close to you it sort of awakens you, you sort of lose your fear of death a little bit," said the 45-year-old widow.

"You kind of have a renewed appreciation of life."

Carter's husband Arron Dack, a 39-year-old father of two, was attending a conference at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He called his wife after the first plane hit the tower he was in.

"He said a bomb had gone off," said Carter, who lived in New Jersey at the time. Dack, who was on the 105th floor, told her to call 911, which she did. Minutes later, an officer told her a plane hit the building.

"I turned on the TV just in time to see the second plane hit the second building and that was pretty dramatic."

Carter remembers initially going into "calm mode," asking for children's books on grief just hours after the towers fell. That calm then gave way to total numbness.

"It was like I was watching my own life through a pair of goggles," she said, describing her world at the time as devoid of colour. "It was like I was an automaton."

After eight months, Carter's numbness was replaced with panic over the arrival of summer — a period that brings back memories from when her husband was alive. She still wrestles with that panic, although she’s far more adept at handling it.

"You’re trying to keep yourself so busy so you don’t have to think about what’s not there," she said. "That freneticism, I have to work really hard, even still, to keep that at bay."

Carter now lives in Seattle with her two children. She quit her job soon after her husband died because she was unable to concentrate. Instead, she began to write. Putting her tangle of emotions down on paper led to a book titled "The Alchemy of Loss." Carter is now a blogger and a speaker on grief and resiliency.

"I maybe live too much in a world of loss,” she said with a light laugh, adding that she tries to put a positive spin on life after grief.

"None of us want to close the chapter, it just becomes part of the fabric of who we are ... We’ve shown to ourselves our own strength."

Ellen Judd, who lost her partner Christine Egan, agreed.

"It's something that's never completed," she said of processing a loss. "She's still present. I think she was a very good person and it's a good thing to have her still present in our lives."

Egan was visiting her brother in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Both were killed.

"It's a huge loss," said Judd. "She lost the rest of her life and we lost everything she was giving to people around her."

Hans Gerhardt, who lost his son Ralph, also continues to deal with the grief.

The 34-year-old younger Gerhardt was on the 105th floor of the north tower and called his parents after the first plane hit. He told them he was OK, that he loved them and that he'd call later. That call never came; his remains were never found.

"It's still hurting, there's no question about it. And you will not forget," said Gerhardt, a retired hotelier who lives in Toronto. "You're constantly reminded."

Those reminders aren't always memorials or media reports. They're also having his son's old furniture in his office, an old birthday message as the screen saver on his computer, the empty chair on holidays.

Gerhardt took to writing to make sense of the immense grief that engulfed him. The entries which began in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 turned into a memoir dedicated to his son which was published nine years later titled "Hotel Biz."

"The pain was so big so you wanted to express it," said the 69-year-old, adding that the look back on his life renewed his appreciation of the time he had with his son.

"You try to look at your glass half full, instead being depressed and saying its half empty," he said. "At least you had 34 years."

Kimmy Chedel also tries to think positive.

The 47-year-old Quebec native lost her husband in the attacks when her children were just one and two years old. Frank Joseph Doyle was on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center when the attacks took place. Chedel often recalls the last conversation they had.

"He said, 'You have to promise me every day for the rest of their lives you'll tell Zoe and Garrett how much I love them,' and I didn't realize that he was saying goodbye, he was just so brave and so strong," said Chedel. "The event still feels very raw in my mind."

Life for Chedel and her children now goes on as normal, but the anniversary is always hard.

"The good part of Sept. 11 is that no one will ever forget how everyone died, so you've got tons of love and support," she said. "But at the same time, the day is so horrific that it's excruciatingly painful."

Chedel, who was living in New Jersey, moved back to Canada after 9/11. She then formed "Team Frank" in her husband's memory, made up of friends and family — including her two kids — who gather annually to run in a New Jersey road race and a Quebec triathlon Doyle took part in before his death. The team has since expanded to over 150 people, with members participating in numerous events worldwide.

"The idea was...if anyone had a Frank moment or a Frank inspiration to send us a picture to let the kids know they haven't forgotten Frank," she said.

Ultimately, the focus on her children and keeping their lives positive keeps Chedel constantly moving forward.

"My goal, year after year, was just focus on the positive," she said. "I kept telling the kids, 'Daddy would want us to keep on living.'"

By Diana Mehta, The Canadian Press

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