For four long years now, four women have met weekly to celebrate a bond that has grown as strong as any in their lives -- a bond born of suffering, understanding and love. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the lives of Claudia Ruggiere, Ann Haynes, Pattie Carrington and Julia Collins changed forever.
Their husbands were the loves of their lives, and all were successful and devoted men, with offices in the World Trade Center.
Ruggiere remembers the day her husband, Bart, called to tell her what happened. "He said, 'I'm getting out of here.' I was convinced, and really held out hope, that he was gonna be coming home."
Haynes says Ruggiere was her lifeline on 9/11, because whatever happened to Bart was going to happen to her own husband, Ward.
When the women lost their husbands in the terror attack, their lives were shattered, and it seemed as if it would be impossible to recover.
"When you're in the depths of sadness like that, you just think you can never come out of it and you will never be OK," Carrington says.
Collins says she wondered how she'd be able to do things without her husband, Tom. "Maybe he'll come back. Now I know that wasn't possible. But I wished it and hoped it so badly," she says.
Ruggiere had known each of the widows individually, but they had never met as a group. In July 2002, Ruggiere invited them all to get together for the first time at a restaurant on New York's East Side.
"It was meant to be," Haynes says. "We knew it was where we wanted and needed to be ... with each other."
The four women attended the first 9/11 memorial event at ground zero together and immediately after took a trip to the West Coast to recover.
"We would sit in a room, tell stories and grieve and cry and laugh," Ruggiere says. "It was a four-day-long group therapy session."
It was that night, over dinner, that the Widows Club was born. A club built by four successful, professional women who shared a deeper understanding of one another's grief. Each knew instinctively what to say and what not to say.
Haynes was the only Widow's Club member with children.
She tried to stay positive for her children and spent much time preparing a burial plot for her husband. Haynes sought closure but never got a body to bury.
"It was the last thing that I could do for him and I wanted it to be perfect," Haynes says, "and be a place where we could go and talk to him and be with him and know that it was there for us to remember him by."
Helping Each Other Heal
The 9/11 widows took turns being strong and being weak for one another. And they were comforted by knowing there was someone else out there who knew how they felt.
The closer the women got, the stronger they got. They had weekly dinners, made daily phone calls and took trips together. One year they went skiing together and to the beaches of Mexico the next. Life was slowly becoming an adventure again. They even went surfing together.
"We've never stunk at something so much and had so much fun," Ruggiere says. "It's not about being perfect and succeeding as much as it is for us about taking the chance and being open to the adventure.
"We all agreed that we need to make the boys proud. We need to live on in the way they lived their lives, and carry on their spirits, since they can't."
Finding Love Again
Haynes was the first of the women to approach dating again. "[I] so wanted to feel a little bit better and so wanted to have that hope of having, you know, love and a partner that I was willing to try it, but it's hard."
Carrington says she went on her first date wearing a wedding ring, and Haynes says she spent a substantial amount of time talking about her deceased husband.
"Not to mention, all over your apartment are pictures of your husband, your wedding pictures -- you know, they're shrines, basically," Collins adds. "I think we understood that everyone starts dating at a different time, and you encourage each other to do that."
Collins was the last to begin dating again. When the Widows Club traveled to the Italian island of Sardinia -- after the fourth anniversary of 9/11 -- all the women's lives were on the upswing. They were all dating again and feeling hopeful, all except Collins.
"I was just going through a depression, but they recognized it and saw it and helped bring me back up," Collins says.
Four years after 9/11, the women started feeling and seeing dramatic changes in their lives.
"When I fell in love again and opened my heart, you realize the capacity the heart has to grow. [You] continue to love and to love more than one person," Ruggiere says.
When John Donovan proposed, Ruggiere accepted, with the approval of the other three Widows Club members. The celebration was as hard won and heartfelt as it could be, from the engagement party to the wedding in the Bahamas.
Collins says she felt like a different person after Ruggiere's wedding; she knew everything was going to be OK.
Haynes was next to fall in love. Just three months ago, she got married to Kevin Nalepka, who also had been widowed a few years earlier.
"We were two people who had experienced the same thing," Haynes says. "And, you know, it just evolved from helping each other, to friendship, to love, and if I weren't in my shoes, I certainly wouldn't have ever believed that it could happen. But it can."
It has been a dramatic year for the Widows Club. Carrington left her job this summer and took off for new adventures overseas. "It's this dream that I've always had, to live in a foreign country, to learn a foreign language. I feel like this little bird who has grown out of the egg and is now ready to fly," Carrington says.
"I think that we all really helped each other to start to learn to love life again," Ruggiere says. "Somebody asked me, 'Now that your lives are going in different directions, is [your] friendship gonna end?' No way ... we're family," Collins says.
It's a family tied together by the men they loved so much and lost so tragically on Sept. 11, 2001.