20 Years After 9/11, I’m Giving Up My Survivor’s Guilt

My dad escaped the horrors of the World Trade Center attacks. Yet for both of us, the trauma remains.

Jada Gomez
5 min readSep 9, 2021


Photo courtesy of the author

I had big plans for September 11, 2001.

I left my childhood home in Queens that morning dressed in flared jeans with patches below the knee. As I hopped on the F train at 179th Street and Hillside Avenue, Krystal Harris’ song “Supergirl!” from The Princess Diaries played on repeat in my Discman. I was just a teen, a sophomore at NYU headed to class and counting down the hours until that evening, when I’d meet with my friends to see O-Town perform live.

That day didn’t go as planned.

Instead of dancing and singing at the top of my lungs with my girls later that evening, I found myself holding my breath on an empty silent train ride from campus.

Up until that point, my dad had worked at the World Trade Center for my entire life. So I had already experienced breaking news reports about terrorist attacks at the Twin Towers interrupting cartoon broadcasts. After the infamous 1993 bombing, he called home to say he was safe as I watched the aftermath on TV. An elementary school kid at the time, I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude. After all, my dad was a superhero to me. And in my young mind, I couldn’t fathom either of my parents ever dying.

The events of 9/11 changed that for me. I spent hours on that nightmarish Tuesday wondering what life would be like without my dad as I watched clouds of black smoke billowing in the sky from the rail-thin safety of NYU’s Weinstein Building. I saw people covered in dust, running in the opposite direction of the destruction while solemn-faced firefighters drove toward it, sirens blaring. I watched an older woman strike a photographer with her purse — she’d demanded that he stop taking photos of her misery. It was all so overwhelming.

It’s triggering to see photos of the towers burning while scrolling Instagram. Or to watch Twitter clips of humans falling from the sky alongside office supplies. My dad witnessed these moments firsthand, and his fear is palpable in his stories.

I’m forever thankful that my father made it home that day. And I know those unforgettable hours of agony and angst were nothing compared to the massive loss tied to 9/11. I still feel an everlasting connection to children I watched on nonstop news broadcasts, holding up photos of their loved ones in the hopes that they’d be found at a hospital, still alive. Twenty years later, it feels like being part of a group bonded by grief and guilt.

It’s one of the reasons I’m dreading the 20th anniversary of that cloudless day in New York City.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve watched the anniversary of 9/11 morph from a day of solemn reflection into one overrun by clickbait and conspiracy theories. It’s triggering to see photos of the towers burning while scrolling Instagram. Or to watch Twitter clips of humans falling from the sky alongside office supplies. My dad witnessed these moments firsthand, and his fear is palpable in his stories. It feels wrong to see these images flooded across social media feeds, treated with a level of disconnection as if dealing with ancient artifacts.

For one, I’m glad that my remote-work lifestyle will shield me from some of those intrusive images. A couple of years back, a co-worker sat at a table in front of me and watched the towers fall on YouTube — over and over again. She had little connection to the event; she was much younger than me and didn’t reside in New York or D.C. when the attacks happened. Me? I was there. In Manhattan. I smelled the carnage and flames. Those images — along with large crowds and blaring sirens — instantly transport me back to the fear of 9/11. Her voyeurism is my visceral trauma.

I know that this year’s anniversary holds more weight than those in recent memory given that it’s a milestone. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know much about self-care. But now, as an adult, I’m drawing some clear lines. For one, I’ve already begun limiting my time on social media. There’s no need for me to scroll through hurtful conspiracy theories, political agendas, or horrific images that will only cause more pain. Most years, I share a picture of my dad and me as a child to remember my blessing that day. This year, I’ll post it in advance. My heart can’t take #NeverForget captions this time around. I’ll skip the TV specials this year unless it’s giving a platform for the stories of survivors. I’ll never stop taking a moment to listen to them — their loved ones are all that matters as we commemorate 20 years of their unimaginable losses.

As I reflect and do my own soul searching this year, one thought keeps popping up: I was just a kid. I’ve carried so much survivor’s guilt in my heart since I was a teen. Now that I’m in my thirties, as I look back at that bubbly girl, I just want to hug her. I wish I could give her back that day. I wish that she got to watch a cheesy boy band concert with her friends, that she never saw the smoke and destruction, the towers toppling. I wish she got to spend her early years at NYU without NYPD spot checks, a smoldering Ground Zero, and the start of a decades-long war.

These are all things my dad reminds me of each year. He said I was robbed of my youth and my NYU days. He wanted me to have the full New York City experience, to catch live shows outside of the World Trade Center and meet him for lunch sometimes. For 20 years, I thought that would be terrible to lean into. My dad survived, and other fathers didn’t.

But with maturity, I realize now that both feelings of grief can exist.

On September 11, 2021, I plan to wake up and thank God for another bonus year with my dad. I’ll listen to the reading of the names of those we lost. I’ll clutch the kids whose parents did not come home close to my heart. No more guilt. No more shame. I’ll give myself the grace to unplug from the neverending pseudo-commemorative scroll and simply feel what I feel.



Jada Gomez

Senior Platform Editor at Medium. Girl with the long last name from the Empire State. NYU Alum. Runner. Puppy Mommy. Smiler.