Counting Their Blessings

updated 09/11/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2006 01:00AM

SUSAN RETIK
JACQUELINE MILAM
CAROLANN LARSEN
LISA REINA
LINDA DICKINSON

February 25, 2002

SUSAN RETIK
She began a charity to help desperate Afghan widows and discovered that it was also a way to heal herself

Some people deal with tragedy by retreating from the world. For Susan Retik, who was seven months pregnant when her husband, David, a 33-year-old venture capitalist, died on American Airlines Flight 11, that wasn't an option. "I had to get up and take care of my kids," she says. "So I went nutso and took the 'I'll get through this by staying so busy I don't have to think' approach."

That only worked for so long. Several months after her loss, Retik, now 38, found herself watching a television show about the lives of impoverished women in Afghanistan. Recalling the overwhelming offers of food and consolation that had come her way after 9/11, "I thought, 'What if I could help one widow in Afghanistan, the same way so many people helped me?'"

Along with another 9/11 widow, Retik founded Beyond the 11th, a charity that has so far raised more than $325,000 to help 500 Afghan widows and their 2,500 kids by teaching them such vocational skills as raising poultry and making rugs. In May Retik left her home in Needham, Mass., for Kabul, where she met scores of people her charity has helped. "I met women who said, 'Just to know that you are a widow and that Americans are thinking about us ...' It made them feel not so alone," she says.

In another unforeseen turn of events, Retik, the mother of Ben, 8, Molly, 7, and Dina, 4, is now happily engaged to Donald Ger, 39, a business consultant she met online. Like her work in Afghanistan, his love has helped in her recovery. "Nobody wants to be the victim," she says. "Once I felt strong enough to help someone else, that's what got me through."

JACQUELINE MILAM
With tough military discipline, she chose to focus on the future, not to dwell on the past

On July 4, 2004, Air Force Maj. Jacqueline Milam left Washington, D.C., behind and moved to San Antonio with her two kids. "It was Independence Day," she recalls, "like starting over again, all fresh and new." Which she desperately needed. Certainly, she suffered the pain of losing her husband, Ronald D. Milam, 33, who was working at the other side of the Pentagon from her own office that day. But on top of that came the added pressures of being a 9/11 widow. "People were always asking me how I was doing," she says, "telling me, 'I know what you've been through.' How do they know what I've been through?"

Milam, 38, a native of White Castle, La., who joined the Air Force in '93, has settled into her job as a sexual-assault-response coordinator at Lackland Air Force Base. She tells almost no one that she is a 9/11 widow, does not date and displays no photos of her husband in her living room. "I keep those in my bedroom," she says. Nor is she planning to watch any television coverage commemorating the 9/11 anniversary. "I don't want my babies to see Mommy in tears," she explains.

Sometimes that can't be helped. When her son Ron Jr., 4, sees other parents picking up their kids at daycare, he asks, "Where's my daddy?" "I tell him, 'He's in heaven,'" she says. "I don't want him to think his daddy abandoned him." Someday, down the road, Milam will take Ron Jr. and his sister MyeJoi, 6, to visit their father's gravesite. In the meantime, she says, she is looking forward, not back. "Some people say, 'She's just avoiding dealing with it,'" says Milam. "No, I'm not. I'm just moving on."

CAROLANN LARSEN
Hard as she tries not to surrender to her sense of loss, she still can't escape her memories of Scott

Inside a curio cabinet at Carolann Larsen's New York City home lie a few mementos of her late husband Scott, a firefighter killed at age 35 in the Twin Towers. There's a photo from his F.D.N.Y. academy days, the hat from his dress uniform, the flag that draped his coffin. That's about all. Larsen, 39, doesn't want to surround herself with many more reminders of her late husband. "I guess it's the 'out of sight, out of mind' type of thing," she says.

After Scott's death Larsen packed away his clothes in boxes. Last year she moved to the house across the street and bought new furniture. Although she kept a few family photos that included her husband, she didn't create a shrine to her high school sweetheart or add more pictures to the walls in his memory. She says she has no interest in dating and devotes herself to her children, Marisa, 14, Brenda, 13, Scott Jr., 9, and August, who was born just 48 hours after his father died. "With them around, you don't have time to think about anything," Larsen says. "Even when they go to bed, I still have toys to pick up; I'm doing their laundry." Carolann never speaks of Scott to the kids; she has not even told her youngest that his father was a firefighter. But clearly they've talked among themselves. "When August sees a fire truck," she explains, "he'll say, 'Oh, that's what Daddy did.'"

In truth, the kids are all the reminder Larsen needs. She can see her husband in Scott Jr.—he bears a striking resemblance to his father—and in many of Brenda's facial expressions; he's always here, present even in his absence. Even so, five years on, the grief hasn't eased. "You change, you adjust to it, but no, it doesn't get better," she says. "Some days you just wake up and go, 'God, I can't believe this.'"

LISA REINA
Though she found love, marriage and motherhood again, her lost husband remains a constant presence

Lisa Reina was moving on, more or less. Three years after her husband, Joe, 32, an operations manager for Cantor Fitzgerald, died in the World Trade Center, she decided to marry N.Y.P.D. sergeant Robert Ruggiero. But there was a catch. "He knew if he wanted me, he had to take Joe too," says Reina, 36. "Rob knows I love Joe, I always will, and that if Joe was here, he wouldn't be."

Reina, a stay-at-home mom, had no interest in dating when they met at a mutual friend's party in March 2002. She was deep in mourning, plus she had her hands full with Joseph III, the son she bore three weeks after 9/11. "But the friend said, 'Get her out of the house,'" recalls Ruggiero, 37, who was divorced. Reina and the baby joined him and his 5-year-old son at the Bronx Zoo, and platonic dates followed at playgrounds, pizza parlors and the movies, always with tots in tow.

"It was hard for me to be friends with another man," Reina says. "It took a long time for the guilt to go away." The relationship turned romantic at the start of 2003, and by year's end, she admits, "I didn't want him to leave." Soon she was pregnant with the couple's daughter, Raiana Nicole, born in January 2004. At their wedding that October, a tuxedoed Joseph, then 3, gave his mom away.

"When I have dreams of Joe, I wake up and cry to Rob," Reina says. "He never says, 'Okay, it's five years; stop crying.'" Nor did Ruggiero complain about the pictures of Joe that filled their Staten Island home. Then, she says, a friend told her, "'Rob's a great guy, and he's raising your son, but don't you think those pictures bother him?' I'm like, 'No.' And she's like, 'He would never tell you.'

"Little by little," she adds, "I started to put some away."

LINDA DICKINSON
Restoring a once-elegant house helped her work through painful memories and find new direction

A few months after 35-year-old stockbroker Patrick Dickinson was killed on 9/11, his mother gave his widow a gift. "She said, 'I know you loved my son very much, you were a wonderful wife, and I want you to be happy and not alone,'" recalls Linda Dickinson, who was then 34 and living in Marlboro, N.J. "'I want you to have someone else in your life.'"

At the time, a brokenhearted Linda could not imagine such a thing. Instead, two years after her husband died, she bought a run-down, 200-year-old house elsewhere in Monmouth County and threw herself into renovating its high-ceilinged rooms. "I bought the house because it needed love and someone to help it along," says the mother of Erin, now 12, and Patrick Joseph, 4. "I couldn't bring my husband back, but I thought, 'I'm going to do something that matters.'"

In August 2005, with the house nearing completion, she reluctantly agreed to go on a blind date with Christopher Pancila, 34, an officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The two met at a restaurant. "When I walked in and scanned the room, I picked him out, and we just connected," she says. "We had a second date and a third, and that was it." They were engaged this spring and will marry in October.

Dickinson knows that even this new chapter in her life won't entirely erase a lingering pain. Picking out a cake and even sending out wedding invitations bring back "memories that once were wonderful but are now heartbreaking," she says. Yet she also gives credit where it's due. Chris has brought "new life to the house, to the family and to me," she says. "He's made me realize how important it is to have someone in your life to love."

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