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Every day is 9/11, every day is pain

Donna Marsh O’Connor lost her daughter in the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

When you lose a child, the grief that enters your life stays for as long as you live. It circles like a large rubber band. Some days, most days, it is loose enough that you can almost forget it's there. You experience joy as you share meals with friends and family or when the sun is brilliant in the sky at the beginning of spring and you are happy that winter has finally loosened its grip. But then there are the days when the rubber band tightens and you are brought back to the intensity of grief, to the moments when death swirls and taunts.

On 11 September 2001, my daughter, Vanessa, went to work early, asking her husband, Timmy, if she looked OK before she left. She was four or five months pregnant. Her body would be found on "the pile" of the collapsed World Trade Center on 24 September, whole and intact, still holding the foetus that would never be born.

On Sunday night, I was at home, channel-surfing, when I saw the breaking-news scrawl on CNN. It said that President Obama would be speaking in ten minutes. It was about 10.40pm. That was the time Vanessa would always call me; an annoyance then, because the phone rates went down at 11pm and she - not caring about the cost - would never wait. When Vanessa wanted to talk, that was it.

Osama Bin Laden is dead, the news said. It was just an odd detail. No significance to me, really. "It means what?" I wondered.

I called to my husband. He turned on a television downstairs. Then, I called my son James, Vanessa's best friend on earth when she died. He was at a bar.

I said: "Osama Bin Laden was killed." He took it in the way I did: he answered, "Oh?" We hung up.

My younger son, Jackson, was in his bedroom and I did not tell him. He was eight on 11 September 2001 and I still think of him as the baby. The child. The one we had to protect when the family crashed.

Obama came on. Sombrely, he told the story, a narrative that began with the details of the morning when the towers fell and planes crashed. And now: "Osama Bin Laden was killed." The rubber band tightened again and I found myself crying. Jackson came in and, as usual when he finds me crying, asked if I was OK. That means: is it Vanessa again?

We watched for a while - the TV coverage, the crowds at Ground Zero and in front of the White House. Celebrations. Revelry. I felt so distant and alone with my family. I went to the computer and posted a status update on Facebook: "Osama Bin Laden is dead. So is Vanessa. We do not celebrate death in our family."

Soon, a reporter for my local television station called and asked if she could interview me by phone at midnight.

Jackson, on his own Facebook page, liked my status. He told me that he was proud of me.

They called from the station. I didn't find words easy, but I repeated: "We do not celebrate death in our family." Later, James sent me a text. It read: " I love you. You did good."

Later, some of the cousins, young boys in my family, posted on Facebook their own versions of how they still missed Vanessa. They were happy to have a way to explain their sadness. They, too, were not going to celebrate. In just a few moments, I had surrounded my family with a way to break the bands, not of grief, but of the hate and vengeance that so often accompany grief.

In the days, months and years following the attacks, US leaders cast Bin Laden as a bogeyman for the American people. He was not mortal. He was a supervillain.

Although I had thought that I was above this rhetorical crafting, I was not. It was only in the discovery of Bin Laden's death that I recognised, to my surprise, that he was human. He was a human being. A cruel and murderous man who had to be stopped after years of killing and hiding. My God, what a waste of human life.

And so, in the streets of America, in response to the announcement that the bogeyman was dead at the hands of the US military, men and women as close to superheroes as we can imagine, the colleges around the White House emptied out. The neighbourhoods around Ground Zero bled our young. They flew flags. They poured champagne. What else could we have expected? Most of them were between nine and 11 on 9/11.

They are our young, grown. We should not judge them. We should teach them.

Donna Marsh O'Connor is a spokesperson for the anti-war group September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden