HILLIARD, Ohio » Carla Gilkerson, a 54-year-old school bus driver, sits at a table with friends at Abner’s diner on Main Street in this small Ohio town. She’s never been to New York City and doesn’t know a soul who died on Sept. 11 — but talk of the terror attacks a decade ago immediately moves her to tears.
Step outside of Abner’s and there, across the road at Main and Center Streets, is one of the largest Sept. 11 memorials outside the attack sites; a granite monument etched with all the victims’ names, surrounded by four giant pieces of World Trade Center steel.
Gilkerson often walks and bikes past the memorial, stopping to run her finger over the names. "I feel like I knew them," she said. "And that I can keep their memory alive."
A decade of public mourning for the nearly 3,000 people killed in the nation’s worst terror attack hasn’t abated; in fact, it thrives in this country, from the steel memorial parks to the fake Statue of Liberty outside a Las Vegas casino to a tiny chapel by ground zero. The attacks have spawned a ritual of extravagant public mourning that hasn’t waned; even Americans who didn’t lose a loved one on Sept. 11 are still grieving as if they had.
Gilkerson says it best: "I think we’ll always mourn our losses from that day."
Experts in grief say the outsized sorrow for "our losses" is Americans’ way of processing the most devastating public event of their lifetimes, which they need to do before they can begin to let go. "This," says Michael Katovich, a Texas sociology professor who teaches on death and dying, "is a process of solidifying our memories."
They’re still grieving in Hilliard, a suburb of the state capital of Columbus, and an eight hour’s drive from New York City. None of its 28,000 residents died on Sept. 11, yet the people who live in the new subdivisions and work in the small brick buildings that line the downtown still mourned. Mayor Don Schonhardt was one of the mourners, and he went to New York to ask authorities there for trade center steel for the city’s memorial.
"We felt it was important to be a community in middle America that would say to the U.S. and the world, that we do remember what happened that day," Schonhardt said.
The memorial fills a city block in the center of town with its two pieces of rusted track from the subway that ran underneath the World Trade Center, and two other large hunks of twisted metal from the towers themselves.
Las Vegas has a permanent memorial at the fake Statue of Liberty outside the New York, New York-Hotel Casino. There’s a rotating exhibit of items that were left at the casino in the days after the attacks. Recently, about a dozen Fire Department and police T-shirts from around the U.S. were on display in the shadow boxes, which are lighted at night. The hundreds of other items are archived and stored at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. In a city of excess and fantasy, the memorial — which is across the street from the MGM Grand casino and its golden Lion statue and from Excalibur, a medieval-themed gambling hall — is a sober reminder of reality, and visitors stop and peer into the shadow boxes while walking from one casino to the next.
The small western Pennsylvania town of Shanksville is touched like no other by the attacks; it’s believed to have been an attack site by accident, but one whose residents had little connection to the 40 people who perished aboard the hijacked jetliner that crashed at more than 500 mph into the lush, green landscape.
A $60 million memorial is being built in the field. Inside a temporary visitor center, people write messages on slips of paper. A message signed by "Cathy" on June 18 reads, "Almost ten years and I still can keep back the tears when I visit any of the three memorials or watch a TV show about 9/11. So truly, we never forget."
Psychologists and sociologists who study grief and public mourning say that most of us — at least for those who didn’t lose a loved one in the attacks — are still processing the pain, which will dwindle with each successive generation.
"It’s part of our defense mechanism to distance ourselves," said Katovich, a professor at Texas Christian University.
Carla Ross, an expert on grief and forgiveness from Raleigh, N.C., said many Americans are still actively mourning 9/11.
"There’s two things that make it really complicated for people," said Ross, a communication professor at Meredith College. "People don’t know who to forgive. They don’t know how to let it go. And instead of grieving and letting go, we’re blaming a whole culture of people. People are really struggling with that."
Gilkerson and her friends don’t want to stop. They say if we do, we’ll forget what happened and the sacrifices made by first responders and soldiers who fought in the wars the attacks wrought.
Brad Fetty, a 34-year-old firefighter-in-training and a bus driver with Gilkerson, said that his city’s memorial conjures up complicated emotions and questions about that day. While looking at the twisted and rusted steel beams, he said he wonders, "What am I looking at? Was there blood, were there tears, actually on this piece of metal?"
Ross thinks that societies that have experienced large tragedies never really stop grieving, but that the mourning becomes softer, less edgy.
"Usually when people get to the end of the grieving process, they start making sense of things, how it’s impacted their lives for the positive," she said.
Karl Glessner is a 60-year-old volunteer "ambassador" at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville. He spends entire days at the public viewing area that overlooks the field where the 40 people aboard the plane died, and explains what he saw and heard that day. Glessner stands at the viewing area when it’s raining and when it’s sweltering, telling people how he felt the ground shake from the plane’s impact and saw the smoke cloud from the crash.
He still sometimes chokes up when talking about the day. Talking to hundreds of people a day at the somber viewing area has made him "a better person," he said. "This is basically the best thing I do," he added.
Schonhardt said he pushed to build the Hilliard memorial after talking about Sept. 11 at local schools, and realizing some of the second-graders weren’t even born when the attacks happened.
"It was designed to help children of our community understand what happened," he said. "This park helps us put the whole thing in perspective. When you lose that much innocence, it’s profound. I think this is one we don’t want to forget."
When asked whether Americans will ever stop mourning Sept. 11, Schonhardt paused.
"I hope not," he said. "I think it’s important we recall the sacrifice and the way the day changed our lives. Once you stop that mourning process and you move on, there’s a tendency to forget."