I was walking out of the gym with a friend when she prepared me for the “bad news” I was about to hear. I knew right away that someone had died. “I found out when you were away and didn’t know how or when to tell you,” she continued. “Elizabeth Landau died.”
Elizabeth was the therapist I met about 18 years earlier, after my husband, Bruce, died of a heart attack on August 29, 2001. He was 37, and we were with our two young children and one of their friends at Disney World.
We came home to a funeral and a shiva, and we attempted to go on. I wanted my children to return to their routine as quickly as possible. I was determined that this sudden, enormous loss was not going to ruin what lay ahead for them. We all got a tremendous amount of community support from our synagogue and close friends, but it wasn’t enough. I knew I had to find help for myself — mentally and emotionally wrought from what I had been through — in order to help them.
The tragic events of 9/11 almost thwarted my quest for help. Just 13 days after Bruce’s death, the World Trade Center came crashing down as I sat in my house with a sick daughter. She needed to see a doctor, but I was unable to take her myself. I just couldn’t deal with the whispers and stares from people talking about my story. Everyone in our community seemed to know. My sister-in-law Susan came from Westchester to go with me to the doctor. We watched on TV the terrifying images from Lower Manhattan, only half-cognizant of what was occurring some 30 miles away. She was trying to reach my brother who worked in the city while helping me get my daughter to the doctor. Some well-meaning people told me that God took Bruce — who was super-organized, highly compassionate, and the most giving and loving man I knew — to deal with all the loss and confusion from 9/11. I have trouble with that.
In the weeks that followed, I tried finding therapists for myself and my children, but given that we lived in a New York City suburb and given what had just happened, the conversations went like this:
“Are you experiencing loss from 9/11?”
“No, but my children lost their father and I lost my husband suddenly.”
“I’m sorry, we only have groups for 9/11 families right now.”
Around me, all I could see/hear was how all those children were being helped by the entire world with gifts, support and love and my family was just not entitled to. I couldn’t watch another story on TV. What about us? I had lost my husband, too. My children had lost their father, too. Our synagogue lost its future president. A national tragedy didn’t change that.
In early 2002, I was given the name and number of Elizabeth Landau, and she agreed to see me. She was tough, not warm and fuzzy, at least not on the outside. She asked me difficult questions and forced me to look closely at my answers. She didn’t allow me to sugarcoat anything. I rarely cried in her office, but I always left with hours of thinking to do. At first, I saw her two or three times a week at her recommendation. She encouraged me to try medication for a short time to “take the edge off my pain, not to mask it.” I was against it, but I finally listened and it did help. She trusted me to know when it was time to stop the medication. She gave me space to make choices, even when that meant making mistakes. Years on, she helped me through my children’s bar and bat mitzvahs.
Elizabeth was a steadying force during my children’s schooling — elementary school, middle school, high school and college. Her support enabled me to find the strength to date and love again. When I remarried, she counseled through blending our families. When my father died, when my mother died, when my younger brother died, she was there. She understood my worries and validated my fears. She helped me manage my PTSD without ever making me feel weak and unfit. She did all those things and so much more for so many years. And by the time she told me she was moving away (but still just a phone call away) about four years ago, I was ok.
I often receive compliments about my ability to survive all my losses, to raise successful children, to have remarried, to have a blended family that has grown to be so close and happy, I say, “thank you” and smile. I know Elizabeth was the monumental force behind my resilience in so many ways. Now that she is no longer “a phone call away,” I am trying to channel what she taught me about living and thriving in the face of loss as I grieve her death, with eternal gratitude for her life.
Wendy Cowen-Smith is a retired New York City schoolteacher. She lives in Rockland County, New York.