Christie Coombs was interviewed about her journey from grief to healing after her husband, Jeff, was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. That interview was featured on “Growing Bolder Now” on Facebook Sept. 10.
Jeff Coombs. That was his name. His widow, Christie Coombs wants you and others to remember it. Jeff Coombs died when the American Airlines flight he was on slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people that day. Each had a name. Jeff left behind a wife and three young children. On that day the children lost a father, and Christie lost a husband.
Christie wants to hear her husband’s name. She says her family needs to hear it to help them hold on to their fading memories of Jeff.
‘My biggest fear is that people are forgetting’
Christie can tell when it is about to happen. Someone recognizes her, stops to say hello, and does everything they can not to mention her husband’s name, thinking it might make her sad. But she wants to hear Jeff’s name. She believes talking about him, reminiscing about who he was, and what he was like keeps his memory alive.
“My biggest fear is that people are forgetting,” Christie said. “When I hear someone talk about him, it warms my heart. One of the worst things when you lose somebody is that, over time, people stop mentioning them and forget who they were.”
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Christie worries that people will forget that each victim who died that day was an individual, a person with family and friends, with hopes and dreams. She fears that as time passes, the individuals will become no more than a statistic. She maintains that remembering the individuals and their personal stories humanizes the tragedy and serves as a heartbreaking reminder of what was lost on that day.
For Christie, and other families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, time has not erased the tragic details of Sept. 11, 2001.
Many details are clear and vivid from that day, others are murky and elusive, Christie says. She remembers that the evening before the flight, Jeff went through his usual ritual of reminding her where he kept important paperwork, such as the mortgage, birth certificates, and passports.
“I only half-listened,” she recalled. “I’m thinking nothing’s ever going to happen, so I don’t need to know this stuff. I didn’t even know what flight he was on, or what airline for that matter.”
The next morning, Christie gave Jeff a ride to catch the train to the airport. As he got out of the car he leaned over and gave her a kiss and said, “See you in five days, and we’ll celebrate our birthdays together.”
Christie’s birthday is Sept. 15; Jeff’s was Sept. 18. It was the last thing he ever said to her.
“I stayed and watched him walk down the platform toward the train,” she said. “And for some reason, it occurred to me that we should probably have better goodbyes because you just never know. Then I drove home and got the kids off to school.”
Christie then remembers standing at her kitchen counter having a cup of tea with the television on. She looked up to see American Airlines Flight 11 slam into the World Trade Center. It never occurred to her that it might have been Jeff’s plane.
“But when the newscaster said the flight originated from Boston, I started putting two and two together,” she said. “I don’t remember exactly what happened next; but I do remember later I saw Jeff’s name scroll across the screen as one of those who had been killed. It was like a knife through my heart. They said I just let out a wail.”
Christie’s phone began to ring off the hook, and friends started showing up at her house. She sent someone to bring home her children, who were 13, 11 and 7.
“The kids came running up to me, and I just took them in a big hug,” she said. “Jeff was all about the group hug and that’s what we had. And I told the kids that some really bad men took over dad’s flight and crashed it into a building in New York, and that he wouldn’t be coming home. That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”
Deep hole of grief
The days and weeks that followed were a blur of phone calls, media interviews, handling affairs, and being with her children. The initial shock gave way to something worse.
“It was a deep hole of grief,” she said. “It was every moment of every day. It was suffocating. We had to find something to pull us out.”
It was a grief counselor who helped by explaining how important it was for Christie to release her anger, pain and sadness. Perhaps the easiest way would have been to let her emotions out through hate, but she wanted to be an example for her children to follow. She found a way to release her pain through love.
Healing comes from helping
Christie believes that healing comes from helping, which is something she does for others who are looking for support and advice.
“People will reach out to me and say, ‘So-and-so just lost a family member. Can you talk to them?’” Christie explained. “So, I try to help them and let them know that although now they can’t see it, in time they will be in a better place. It never gets easier, but your heart does learn how to manage (the loss) better.”
Another way she helps is through the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation.
“About a year after Jeff’s death, I found myself in this dark hole of grief, and I needed a way to work through it,” she said. “I needed my kids to see that when people do nice things for you, you do nice things for others. We created the Jeff Coombs Memorial Foundation to help families in Massachusetts having a hard time financially because of death, illness, job loss, divorce, and other things beyond their control. Over the past 20 years, we’ve raised and distributed well over a million dollars.”
While the Foundation has kept Jeff’s name alive since his death, Christie announced that Sept. 20 will be the final Jeff Coombs Memorial Road Race, Walk and Family Day.
“I thought long and hard about it,” Christie told a reporter. “I talked to the kids about it… and it’s just time. Twenty years is a long time.
“It has been such a positive way of using Jeff’s name and his legacy to make a difference,” she told Growing Bolder. “When we needed it most, this community wrapped a blanket of kindness around me and my kids. This has been our way of trying to do the same for others.”
This year has been a significant one for Jeff and Christie’s three children. Their daughter was married this summer and their youngest will be married in October.
“And our son has a 1-year-old boy who looks just like him,” Christie added.
Loss and hope
Christie acknowledges that everyone experiences loss at some point in their lives.
“Just because my husband died on 9/11 doesn’t make it any more tragic or any more terrible,” she said. “Ours just happened publicly. We’ve had to grieve in public and deal with the anniversary every year.
“9/11 is still with me every day,” she said. “There is no getting around it. When I wake up Jeff is not there. At dinnertime he is not coming home. Then there are unexpected triggers, like recently at the grocery store I saw a sign that said ‘Meals for one,’ and it just hit me. I had to leave because I couldn’t stop crying.”
Most of the time Christie feels stronger than she ever expected.
“It is not something you ever really get over,” she said. “It is just something you have to work through, not because you want to, but because you have to. I live every day with intention. I try to do as much good as I can because that’s the kind of person Jeff was, and it is how I honor him. It becomes clear that kindness and compassion have a far greater impact than hatred.”