Friends Help 9/11 Widow Heal

Sept. 11, 2003 -- When Jill Gartenberg lost her husband, James, in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, she was suddenly a widow, the single mother of one child and three months pregnant with a second.

But she was not alone. Two of her girlfriends raced to her side and stayed there.

Jacqui Schein, a new friend whom Jill Gartenberg had met in temple the year before the terrorist attacks, stayed with her the night she lost her husband and was at Jill's side the day she gave birth to her new baby girl.

A childhood friend, Jill Poznick, flew to New York from Chicago every month to visit in the year following Sept. 11.

"Jill and Jacqui have been there for me," Gartenberg said. "They help me share happy and sad memories … It was just being there, not just for the big things, like cleaning out Jimmy's closet, which Jill did, or being there at the hospital like Jacqui was. It was the everyday things that they were there for."

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, James Gartenberg, a 35-year-old commercial real estate developer, was trapped in his office on the 86th floor of Tower One.

"Jill, there's a fire at work," he said in an initial phone call to his wife. "I love you. Tell Nicole 'I love you.' I don't know if I'm going to be OK, so I love you so much. Goodbye."

As smoke filled the office, he spent the next hour on the phone, talking to his wife, his best friend, another friend and a colleague across town. His friends and family watched on television as the tower where he worked collapsed.

Friends Keep Her Smiling

Two years later, their daughter, Nicole, is now 4, and the family of three is doing well.

"The girls are wonderful and keep me smiling," Jill Gartenberg said. "I am lucky. Nicole is at the age where she is asking about her father. In a way it is a relief since it's not a topic we have talked about. She said this week, 'Daddy died. That means he is never coming back.' She got it right away that he was dead, but now it is at a different level."

For Poznick, spending time with Jill Gartenberg was more than helping a friend. She was mourning Jill's husband, too. All three bonded when they attended the University of Michigan together. After James Gartenberg died, she helped Jill redecorate their apartment and spent 30 hours cleaning her bedroom, going through James' clothing and papers.

"I never even thought about why I was doing it," Poznick said. "I just kicked into overdrive. You just do it. We have such a long history together that we are more like family than anything else."

Poznick said she made it a point to share stories and talk about Jim, instead of avoiding a painful topic.

"It seemed more natural to talk about him than not to talk about him. He was in our lives for so many years," she said. "Part of the mourning process is to laugh and cry."

No Treading on Eggshells

When Schein first met Jill and her daughter, the normally shy Nicole climbed right onto her lap within minutes. The two women became fast friends. A year after James died, Schein was the one who went with Jill to the police station to retrieve his frequent flier card, the only physical proof of his presence at Ground Zero.

"We went skiing together, we talked together," Schein said. "Jill and I talked several times a day since we met. I don't think my behavior after 9/11 was that different from what I did before. We met and became instant best friends."

After the tragedy, she did not want to walk on eggshells around Jill Gartenberg.

"I have treated her as a normal person," Schein said. "Others would treat her more delicately. Personally, I thought it best to be normal with her. No matter what she went through on Sept. 11, she is still going through her life steps, like birthdays. She is living. She has to continue to do that, for herself and her children."