A couple of us are planning to visit the 9/11 Memorial in New York next month on September 11th itself; it would be our first time visiting the memorial. I want to be careful to not treat the event as some adventurous visit and to keep in mind that people are going there for a day of mourning and remembrance. This might be easier said than done, since there is also a 9/11 museum there that we plan to visit too.

And another thing that makes matters a bit more complicated is that 9/11 occurred almost 17 years ago now. For example, we could still say things like

I'm sorry for the loss of your son.

But don't know if is that unnecessary or even discouraged at this point in time, in the year 2018. We want to be cautious of what we are saying, in order to show respect to the families and not inadvertently offend them.

How can we interact with the families that lost loved ones on 9/11 without offending?

I have never been to a place of mourning before—not a funeral, nothing—so I'm very inexperienced in such environments.

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    Could you explain why you think you are going to interact with people at the memorial in the first place?
    – Marcus
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 11:48
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    @Marcus OP did say they have never been to a place of mourning and are inexperienced. So, OP, to expand: it is unlikely that you will need to or be pushed to interact with people at the memorial in the first place. Grieving is very often a personal process. Your question is still valid, however, in the case that you may have to.
    – nostalgk
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 12:32

5 Answers 5


Disclaimer: I survived the 2016 Berlin truck attack. My mother and I survived but I saw people (strangers) die around me, which is still an unbearable pain. I went through therapy afterwards and I have no sequelae but it is still an unpleasant memory to recall.

I'd suggest you do not express condolences, unless you're actually discussing with someone who just told you they lost someone on September 11th.

People who survive such traumatizing event are trying to do one thing: move on*. Though I'm sure your condolences are well-meant, this is not necessary: it is not likely to relieve their pain, and would only remind them of their loss. Some people like to talk about their experiences to help them grieve, so if someone prompts you or starts talking to you about theirs, you could say something like:

I'm sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine how hard this must have been.

This polite way to respond also acknowledges the pain and grief the person must have been through, and does not call for further discussion if the person does not want to.

*This obviously does not mean they forget.


Unless someone is extremely emotional (think crying uncontrollably) and vocal about it, I wouldn't bother anyone there.

Not everyone there is mourning a dead relative, as many people go on the tour simply to see the devastation. I actually went to the museum a couple years back, and I don't recall noticing anyone in uncontrollable hysterics while I was there. There were a fair few placing flowers by someone's name on the memorial, but nobody stopped them.

I would think it would be rude if someone did so to a mourner who was being discreet about their grief. It is a sad day for them, just let them be. I can imagine they don't want to be stopped by hundreds of people who don't know them and the loss they suffered. I was stopped by a couple of people when I readjusted some fallen flowers who said something like you said above, and I knew nothing about the person who's flowers I was adjusting. They were fallen and I wanted to fix it out of respect, and I had a few awkward "oh"'s come my way after I explained this to them.

My point is, you don't know that much about them and their loss. Let them be.

Now, if someone is crying loudly and openly, by all means, give them a word of comfort if you can. There will be a lot of people rushing to this person's aid, given the location and the circumstance, so you may not even get a chance to get close to this person. The words you chose above are fine, but you may want to be a bit more ambiguous about this person and say something closer to

I'm sorry for your loss.

unless you know the relationship this person has with the griever. It would be pretty awkward to say something like "I'm sorry for the loss of your son" when it was their husband or father who died instead.

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    Is there some reason you think that open mourning is an invitation to interact? As you seem to acknowledge, people in mourning often just want to be left alone to grieve — I’m not sure that the fact they were unable to hide their grief changes that. So an explanation of why you have a different view might be helpful.
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 18:24
  • @Dennis I'll add it into my answer in a bit if its sufficient: When I'm talking about open mourning I mean like loud wails that can be heard from a fair distance away, not red eyes and crying quietly. The loud wails could be an indicator of something completely unrelated to the death of a loved one and should be investigated regardless to make sure someone is OK. Thanks for the comment though, I realized I wasn't clear about that. I hope this helps Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 18:46
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    ah, I see what you have in mind. The issue is more that the behavior might suggest something is wrong that warrants some “investigation”. Maybe the person isn’t “inviting” the interaction, but concern might might warrant intervention to ensure that person is OK or is prompted to seek the relevant help. I’m not sure I agree with the evaluation, but I can understand it now. Thanks!
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 18:51

How can we interact with the families that lost loved ones on 9/11 without offending?

I doubt you will have to actually worry about this, but if you are just calm, cool and know how to “hold space” you should be fine.

Others have addressed this but need to add my two cents. I live in NYC, was in NYC when the attacks happened, I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan that day since I had some friends who were in Lower Manhattan that day and was concerned about them. They were/are all fine. I also regularly commute through the huge mall/transportation hub there.

Which is all to say: I highly doubt you will have direct interaction with anyone connected to 9/11 attacks in any way. There are just too many people going through there all the time and—in all honesty—you will simply be another face in a crowd.

But that doesn’t me you won’t run into someone indirectly affected by 9/11 that day. And if you do just be polite, calm, cool and just “hold space” for them. You know what holding space means? Just be polite, attentive, quiet and respectful.

Also, don’t forget the World Trade Center is still a working part of the city.

That said, I will tell you right away you might find the 9/11 memorial site more disorienting in other ways. Like I said, the 9/11 World Trade Center area is more than just a memorial.

First there are the reflecting pools at the footprint of each tower with waterfalls going down a few stories in height. These are definitely moving, free and open to the public. But you cannot avoid the reality that the World Trade Center site is still what it was before the attacks: A massive office park that also has a mall and transportation hub located there.

While I am fairly certain utterly nobody who is a tenant at the World Trade Center is disrespectful to those who lost their lives that day, you need to really—in my humble opinion—to prepare yourself to seeing people rushing to work, shopping at an Apple store or buying coffee and snacks while mourning happens.

This is a topic that can be debated, but as a native New Yorker I find it hard to understand how to feel when I am at the 9/11 site because of the memorial being so close to the hustle and bustle of the city. So just accept the fact that is what it is.

And past that honestly just be cool and don’t be a jerk and you should be fine.


How can we interact with the families that lost loved ones on 9/11 without offending?

It's very kind of you to worry about this, but unless you're visiting on September 11th, the odds are that there won't be any such families present at the 9/11 memorial at the same time you are. Most of the people there are tourists, taking selfies and being, well, tourists.

Simply being quiet and respectful of others will probably be enough.

Source: I live in NY and work near the memorial.

Edited to add: I haven't been to the memorial on September 11th, but my impression is that during the public ceremonies, there are reserved areas for families of survivors. However, I agree with JakeGould and T.E.D. that everyone who lived in the area was impacted one way or another by 9/11. If someone in mourning approaches you, saying something like "I'm sorry for your loss" would be fine, but listening and being respectful would be good, too. But remember that these are New Yorkers. They probably aren't interested in talking to strangers while dealing with their grief. Give them space to deal with their grief. (If they do want to talk to you, don't worry - they will.)

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    The OP just wrote in a comment below their question that they plan to be there on September 11th. Maybe you want to adept your answer.
    – Arsak
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 8:25

If you've gone out of your way to go to a memorial for a terrible historical event. It should (both literally and figuratively) go without saying that you are sorry it ever had to happen. You no more need to apologize to every bereaved family you see than you'd need to do the same to every Jew you see at a Holocaust memorial, every veteran you see at the WWII memorial, or every African American you see at the MLK memorial.

Let the memorial do all the talking. If you take an attitude of listening (rather than eg: laughing and taking smiling selfies in front of the exhibits), that should be enough.

I'd also like to point out that family members were far from the only people left traumatized by this event. There were a lot of people who escaped the towers, but know friends and acquaintances who didn't. Even more, particularly in NYC, personally knew someone who died in the towers. There were people escaping down the stairs as first responders passed them on the way up, who have to live with the knowledge that almost all of those rescuers died. There are probably millions (yes millions) of people who watched thousands of human beings murdered live on TV. That's not the kind of thing that leaves a person unaffected.

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