10 Lessons I Learned from My Friend’s 9/11 Death

My best friend vanished without a trace that day. But the mark she made on my life has been indelible.

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Zibby and Stacey

My best friend and college roommate, Stacey Sanders, died without leaving a trace on 9/11. I don’t know any details. And I never will.

I know she worked on the 93rd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center at Marsh & McLellan, a job she’d just started several months before. I know she smiled and waved goodbye to our close friend and roommate on Sixth Avenue that sunny morning and descended into the subway to head to work. I know she usually called her mother at home in Connecticut when she got to her desk. Her mother’s phone rang just once that morning. No one was on the line. I know the first plane struck the building she worked in, right at her floor, at 8:46 am. I know that no one ever saw or heard from her again.

I know that morning changed everything 18 years ago. Clearly, for the city and country, but also, very deeply, for me.

I’ll forever mourn Stacey’s absence: her radiant energy; the way she danced whenever she heard music, pointing two fingers up to the sky; her impulsive flair that made her tie a red boa around her neck on her way out the door; her ability to connect with everyone; the mischievous wink in her eye; her love of adventure and skinny dipping. Her death at our shared age, 25, taught me a few things that have certainly changed the trajectory of my life. And her memory continues to do so, nearly two decades on.

1. Never turn down champagne. Stacey would celebrate anything, from successfully roasting a chicken to the first snowfall. Everything was exciting and worth commemorating. So now, for me, anything can be cause for celebration. I don’t care how small or seemingly insignificant the occasion. Bring out the bubbly. Buy some balloons. Throw yourself a birthday party. Mark the victories.
2. Express yourself. Stacey chose her job as a means to an end, a way to ensure her admission to business school. But she still tried to incorporate things she loved after work, such as running, fashion design or learning Italian. Now my philosophy is that if you could get killed sitting at your desk, make sure that you do as much as possible to make what you’re doing at that desk feel important. Bring your unique set of skills, your youness, to a project: Write that children’s book. Learn to knit. Start a blog.
3. Don’t settle for your life partner. Stacey always made sure her partners treated her exactly how she would want to be treated. If things aren’t good with someone at the beginning, I’ve learned chances are they won’t get better over time. Find someone who you enjoy being with. Someone who appreciates the things about you that you think are pretty neat, and is happy to live with the aspects that aren’t. Share some basic interests and philosophies on life. If there’s something toxic in your relationship and it doesn’t get better with effort, run, don’t walk.
4. Life’s too short to be miserable. The realization that you can vanish without a trace except for an errant strand of hair on a discarded sweater reminds me to live in the moment. I’ve learned that you’d better figure out the root of what’s making you upset. Brainstorm. Get help. Try medication. Learn some coping mechanisms. Life is not always fun. But if something is routinely getting you down —that unfinished manuscript, the friend you didn’t invite to your birthday party, your relationship with your mom — tackle it as best as you can. Make amends. We only get to do this once.
5. Choose friends wisely. Stacey didn’t suffer fools. She knew she was too valuable for that. Jettison the ones who make you feel small. Does your old college friend routinely put you down? Does another demand more of you than you can give? Does the new mom friend make you feel terrible about how long it took to potty train your son? Bye-bye.
6. Say yes. Stacey always did . A friend invites you to game night? Go! A new play sounds interesting? Go! Girls yoga trip to Costa Rica? If you can afford it, book a ticket! You might not have the exact experience you wanted, but saying yes will lead to moments that can’t be replicated. And sometimes it’s a lot nicer to know you tried something than wish you had.
7. It will get easier. Some things that happen in life are terrible and inexplicable, but you will survive them. Trust yourself to get through them. The grief. The pain. One step. Then another. And another. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to function again when I lost Stacey. I tried to drop out of school. I cried constantly. My family decided it had gone on for way too long and begged me to snap out of it. But I couldn’t. Now, I keep Stace in my heart, but her loss doesn’t take full control over me me any longer. Back then, I don’t think I could’ve imagined a functional version of myself again.
8. Join a community. I don’t care if it’s your religion, your school, or even a Facebook group. Connect with others by letting their stories and experiences help get you through every stage of life. My business school community helped me through 9/11 by reaching out, listening, being there. I’m still grateful all these years later.
9. Let go of “stuff.” When papers and files and possessions start building up, trash some. I flash back to the day I had to sift through all of Stacey’s belongings, figuring out what to keep and what to toss. I don’t want to put my loved ones in that position. If you don’t really need it, toss it.
10. Laugh. I can still hear Stacey’s laugh. I can see her throwing her head back, joyous, eyes twinkling. I try to channel a little bit of the joy she can no longer experience whenever I can. I can’t give her anything “back,” but I can use her life as a role model, just like I did when she was alive. At dinner every night, my family shares what made us laugh the hardest that day. Find the humor in the everyday, even if you have to find it online with some stupid meme. Throw your head back. Giggle. Cackle. Smile. Uncover the joy. Do it for those who can’t.

Zibby Owens is a writer and the creator/host of Webby-nominated podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.She lives in New York with her husband, Kyle Owens, and four children. Follow her on Instagram.

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