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A Mother's Death on 9/11 Shaped Her Daughter's Future

Looking back two decades, reflections on a legacy left behind

paula edgar as a child being held my her mother donna joan griffith

Courtesy Paula Edgar

Paula Edgar with her mother Joan Donna Griffith.

Paula Edgar's mother should have helped her pick out her wedding dress. Her mother should have been at her law school graduation, should be teaching her grandchildren the show tunes she loved. Edgar's mother should be about to celebrate her 59th birthday.

But Joan Donna Griffith was killed on September 11, 2001, when terrorists flew airplanes into each of New York City's World Trade Center towers. Griffith, an assistant vice president and office manager for Fiduciary Trust, was on the 97th floor of the South Tower when the building took a direct hit. Nearly 3,000 people died.

Yet Griffith's life, and especially her death, have had a huge influence over how Edgar's adulthood unfolded.

"So many things in my life were catalyzed by that loss,” Edgar says. “But she laid the foundation and gave me what I needed to do what I had to do."

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Survivor of a previous attack

This year, Edgar says she will mark the 20th anniversary of her mother's death, by snuggling in bed and watching those musicals her mother loved so much. The Jamaican-born Griffith was Edgar's stepmother but raised Edgar since she was 2 years old. Griffith was a loving wife, a voracious reader, an excellent cook and a true admirer of musicals. She also believed strongly in helping her community and the people around her.

At home, she had an open-door policy with friends and neighbors. She believed in taking action when she saw something wrong, Edgar says. She also refused to be ruled by fear.

two women with paula edgar standing behind her mother donna joan griffith who is seated

Courtesy Paula Edgar

Paula Edgar with her mother Joan Donna Griffith.

Griffith had survived a previous terrorist attack, when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. She told Edgar that as soon as the building reopened, she'd be back at work. “She said, ‘I'm not going to let fear drive me to do things,’ “ Edgar remembers. “That was a lesson that was ingrained in me."

So, just back from a vacation cruise celebrating her 20th wedding anniversary with Edgar's father, Griffith was in the office on that blue-sky day on September 11, 20 years ago. She was looking forward to celebrating her 40th birthday, just a few days away.

Edgar, then 24, was living in California and learned that a plane had hit the World Trade Center when she woke up. She called her father, who was frightened and crying after talking to Griffith, who had seen the first plane hit.

Edgar later learned that her mother stayed on the floor of her building, following the instructions she was given, and helped usher out others who chose to leave. Because some employees were staying put, Griffith stayed, Edgar says. “She lived and she died in service,” she adds. “She was a leader."

After that day, even as young as she was, Edgar stepped into the role of sorting through her mother's estate and working with attorneys connected with the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. 

Those experiences, while painful, changed Edgar's professional life. She was impressed with the lawyers she worked with and decided to go to law school — something she says had never been part of her plan.

Edgar also reconnected, during that time, with a friend who would become her husband. She had known him in middle school, and after hearing of her mother's death, he reached out to provide support. They've been married 18 years and have two children. Edgar's daughter is named for her grandmother. “My husband was the greatest gift my mother gave me,” she says. “We wouldn't have reconnected if I hadn't lost her."

And when Edgar, now 44, turned 40, it felt momentous, because her mother never reached that age. “The lesson from all of this is that life is short,” she points out. “We have to live it as best as we can while we're here."

'We can still do good things in the world'

In the work she does, Edgar sees her mother's fingerprints, too. As a diversity and inclusion consultant who provides training, workshops and professional development for organizations and companies, she's particularly attuned to the recent cultural shifts around race and racial justice, and to the protests and the attention these issues are receiving. She mentors people, volunteers and serves on numerous boards working on social issues.

"She used to say to me all the time, ‘Are you the wind or the leaf?’ “ Edgar says. “That means you can be the leaf, but then you're not directing where you're going. If you're the wind, you're saying, ‘This is what I'm going to do, and then you do it.’ I pride myself on being the wind, especially now."

Griffith's legacy also reverberates in Edgar's own family. Her 17-year-old daughter led a walkout against gun violence in junior high school. She's involved in issues such as environmental justice and anti-racist efforts. And Griffith says she tries to help both her children live without a “shadow of fear” from their grandmother's death.

When Griffith's young son once asked her if another plane would fly into a building, she couldn't tell him that would never occur again. Instead she responded, “Even though terrible, terrible things have happened, we're still here and we can still do good things in the world.”

While she kept her answer simple because of his age, she's thought more about what she would have liked to say. “I know if we live and navigate the world within fear, then we won't be living,” she says. “That's not a helpful way of celebrating those we've lost or our own trajectory."

Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 11, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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