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What to Save

When you lose someone you love, especially in a terrible tragedy like 9/11, you may feel a strong connection with all kinds of objects you associate with that person—photographs, letters, small objects, even whole rooms. Some may bring back happy memories of the person’s life, others will recall the awful circumstances of the person’s passing, and all will remind you of your love and your loss.

Over time you may gradually realize that some of these mementos are very important to you, and you want to keep them; others may lose their power for you, and you may find you are ready to let them go.

Sometimes when for emotional reasons or practical ones, such as space, it is important to select some things to keep and others to let go of, making those decisions can feel overwhelming and be very difficult. 

In the following video, join Margie Miller as she learns about saving and caring for her 9/11 mementos.

What matters most?

Here are some questions that might help you think about which items are most important for you to preserve for yourself or others:

  • Do you want to save materials as part of the legacy of your loved one to share with future generations? 
  • Do you or others in your family feel a strong emotional connection to certain items?
  • Are there several similar items?  If so, might you keep just one or two?
  • Is an item something you would be likely to display or use, or is it something you would put away for safe keeping?
  • Does an item seem to capture something unique, important, or characteristic about the person?
  • Does an item, or a group of items, help tell an important story about your loved one?
  • Does an item, or a group of items capture some part of the story of 9/11 that might help other 9/11 survivors and families or people in the future understand the tragedy?  Do you wish to preserve the memory of your loved one as part the historical record? If so, you might consider donating the item or group of items to a historical repository that would preserve them and make them accessible to the public.
  • What guidance do spiritual or cultural beliefs provide about holding on to or discarding these materials?
  • Do all the members of your family agree about the disposition of these materials? If not, you may want to seek help to build consensus and receive support from your family members about your decisions.

What can you take care of?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have the space for the item or items?
  • Will you have the space in a few years?
  • Is the space available a safe enough environment for storing the item or items?
  • How delicate or fragile is the item?

Consider ways you can preserve your memories without having to keep and care for so many objects:

  • Photograph a specific item or set of items and save this documentation.
  • Video a set of items or a room before dismantling or dispersing the contents. This is a good idea whether or not you are keeping the items.
  • Keep selected parts of a large collection instead of keeping everything.

Emotional Challenges and Support

Most of this website is devoted to the practical matters of choosing what materials to save and how to ensure they are cared for and last as long as possible. The purpose is to help you preserve the memories you want to save, commemorate the events of 9/11, honor the victims of the disaster, and help you—and others in your community and the nation—bring closure to this devastating event.

But this process may be deeply connected with painful memories and issues that are still unresolved and difficult to face. For many people, the effects of a tragedy such as 9/11 can be deep and long-lasting, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. There may be tensions or disagreements within the family about what and how much to keep. Or you may just feel overwhelmed and stuck, not knowing what to do.

If you or your family or friends are finding the prospect of these choices very difficult to face, or if you have begun the process and are feeling overwhelmed, you can be sure of this:

  • You are not alone.
  • There are resources available to help you. 

It may be that counseling or other mental health services could help prepare you for and support you during the project of deciding what to keep and what to discard.

The 9/11-related websites listed below offer resources that may be helpful to you. You may also be aware of resources in your own community—counselors, mental health professionals, spiritual/religious leaders, or others. We encourage you to seek whatever help you need to support your meeting the challenges of this process.

Where to Turn – Counseling Services
Where to Turn’s purpose is to provide crisis relief services for victims of any kind of tragedy by aiding them in obtaining the help they need during the recovery process. This link takes you directly to a list of counseling resources in the 9/11 section of the site.

Families of September 11 – Wellness Resources 
The organization’s mission is to raise awareness about the effects of terrorism and public trauma and to champion domestic and international policies that prevent, protect against, and respond to terrorist acts.  This link takes you directly to their Support Resources – Wellness page, which lists websites and organizations that you might find helpful.

More Information

Simon Mayo’s Bar of Soap - The British Museum, in partnership with the BBC, is building a digital museum to tell a history of our world in objects. When asked to contribute something meaningful to the virtual collection, Simon Mayo, a BBC radio broadcaster, added a bar of soap from the World Trade Center. In this video Mayo speaks movingly about the significance of this seemingly mundane object, and shows how everyday things can evoke strong emotions and become mementos of world-changing events.

The following articles provide a moving and unusual perspective on the community dimensions of grieving that might be helpful to people thinking about what to save.

9/11: Commemorative Art, Ritual, and Story by Steven Zeitlin and Ilana Harlow from Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Fall-Winter 2001.

Hallowed Ground with photographs by Martha Cooper from Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore, Fall-Winter 2001.