The women arrived as strangers.
They came to Jacksonville Beach this week from four different states and brought 13 different stories. What they share in common is grief.
The kind of pain that never quite goes away.
Each of their husbands died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or on duty in the military. They had never met, but knew each other’s struggles without saying a word.
They came to a house on the beach to help each other heal.
“They don’t have to explain themselves,” said Diana DeClemente, director of programs for Tuesday’s Children, the New York-based nonprofit that sponsored the three-day retreat. “Everyone here knows what they are going through.”
‘SO MANY HEROES’
Andrea Garbarini and her husband, New York City firefighter Charley, were together 20 years and married for 10. They had two sons.
She knew his job was dangerous.
“They all ran toward what we were running away from,” she said.
But still she expected him to come home every day. Until he didn’t.
“He was killed that day doing what he loved,” she said of 9/11. “It was one of the worst days in humanity and some of the best. There were so many heroes that day.”
Garbarini, now 54, was a nurse and went to Ground Zero to help and try to find out her husband’s fate.
“After seeing the devastation, I didn’t think he had survived,” she said. “But we all had hope. … We waited and hoped and prayed.”
A year later, she finally received confirmation of his death. Fourteen years later, the tragedy is still ever-present.
“The grief never goes away, it just changes,” she said. “He’s not there for every milestone he should have been.”
There are “constant reminders,” including almost daily references to 9/11 in the New York media. Every year when the country observes a 9/11 anniversary “the bullhorn gets louder,” she said.
But Garbarini, who lives in Pleasantville, N.Y., has had support from the start, from family, the community and organizations like Tuesday’s Children. The nonprofit was formed shortly after 9/11 to support victims’ families, offering a variety of programs for grieving spouses and children. Later it expanded to help military widows and their families.
“They have been wonderful,” she said.
Garbarini decided to attend this week’s Jacksonville Beach retreat not only for herself, but to share her experiences.
“I felt like I needed to be around some other women who had lost their spouses. I knew I could help,” she said. “It has been remarkable. Very strong women who have been through incredible loss.”
The mission of Tuesday’s Children is long-term healing through youth mentoring, health and wellness counseling, career guidance, family programming and community service.
The retreat program for widows, called Project Heart to Heart, began in 2015. Four three-day sessions a year are planned at various locations across the country, with group counseling, art therapy and cooking classes and other activities that focus on building resilience and self-care, DeClemente said.
Together, the survivors realize “they can smile again. … They will find strength again,” she said. They help each other “understand where they were and where they need to go.”
The bonding takes place quickly.
At an art session during the retreat’s second day, the women painted a beach and palm tree scene and were already speaking to each other in shorthand — joking, hugging and high-fiving.
“Look at her, she’s a show-off,” one woman said to a fellow painter who was farther along on her piece than others. Both of them laughed.
Liz Zirkle, the nonprofit’s Jacksonville Beach-based director of military programs and outreach, watched but was not surprised.
She lost her military pilot husband in 2002 in Kansas when a drunk driver hit his car.
“I know the vocabulary. … They were strangers and 24 hours later they’re walking on the beach hand in hand,” she said. “There is so much strength in this room. … They have it for each other.
“They hold each other up,” she said.
LEGACIES AND HEALING
Melanie Cannon’s husband, Robert, was on his way to help fight forest fires in California in 2012 when he was killed. His North Carolina Air National Guard plane crashed in South Dakota.
She had a daughter and a son and immediately focused on them. She wanted to make sure they were OK before she focused on herself. Her children are now in college, “happy and well-adjusted,” she said.
So when Tuesday’s Children contacted her in January about the Jacksonville Beach retreat, the Charlotte woman signed up.
“It was all about healing,” said Cannon, now 53. “I am ready for it now.”
When she arrived, she knew the other women were all 9/11 or military widows.
They quickly discovered another common bond, she said.
The legacies of the men they married.
“They all died honorably,” said Cannon, “and doing what they loved.”