Last Sept. 11, the images of that day were inescapable. Every time they flashed across the screen — flames and black smoke rising and an impossibly blue sky — the anguish came crashing back.
For the families of those killed, the 10th anniversary retrospectives and memorials were so cruelly pervasive it almost felt as if they were reliving the attacks, they said, rather than simply remembering them from a decade’s distance.
“It seemed like every time you turned on the TV, the towers were falling,” said Cindy McGinty, whose husband, Michael, was killed at the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “All the days of buildup, you just couldn’t get away from it.”
This year, as the nation commemorates the 11th anniversary of 9/11, family members of those who were killed expressed a measure of relief that this observance has taken on a more subdued feel, and said they welcomed a softer public spotlight on their personal grief.
It is, they said, a small comfort to have a chance to mourn on their own terms.
“It’s always going to be hard,” said Danielle Lemack, a Belmont resident whose mother, Judy Larocque, was on board a hijacked plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. “But this year I’m not getting bombarded by Sept. 11. This year it will be a little easier to just be sad.”
Diane Hunt, a Kingston resident whose son William was killed at the World Trade Center, said she recoils at the images of the planes crashing into the towers, and prays she does not see them. But last year, no matter how hard she tried to avoid them, they were there.
“As soon as something comes on about that day, the TV goes off,” she said.
Still, whether a milestone anniversary or not, Sept. 11 sharpens a sadness that is never far, she said.
“You want to make it easier for me, bring back my son,” said Hunt, 65. “The sadness never goes away. You never get to have that leave you. I miss him so much, every minute, every day.”
Hunt recalled her son as a kind, loving man, and said the pain of his absence runs deep. His daughter, now 12, has bright red hair like her dad’s. Recently, she has been asking more about him, Hunt said, about the kind of person he was and what he liked to do. After every story, she asks for another.
“It breaks your heart,” Hunt said.
Yet the sense of relief after last year’s fanfare is countered by the fear that Sept. 11 will recede from public consciousness. Sally White, whose daughter Susan was killed at the World Trade Center, said it is important to mark the anniversaries as a way of remembering those who died and to remain vigilant against the threat of terrorism.
“It’s a time in our history that certainly should never be forgotten,” said White, who lives in East Walpole.
Others noted that the Sept. 11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed, have played a minor role in the presidential campaign, and said they worry the threat of terrorism, and the sacrifice made by those in the armed forces, is being overlooked.
Many said that while the intense focus on the anniversary is emotionally draining, the outpouring of support honors the dead and comforts the living.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people who care,” White said. “They deserve to be remembered.”
Jim Ogonowski, whose brother John was the pilot of one of the hijacked planes, said the families of Sept. 11 victims share a grief all their own, deeply personal yet often played out on a public stage.
“We’ve been placed in a position where we’re grieving in public,” he said. “We’ve learned to live with it, but many of us would like the opportunity to mourn in private.”
Ogonowski, a retired Air Force officer who lives in Dracut, said he welcomed a step back from last year’s all-consuming coverage, a return to the more measured, muted remembrances in the years before the milestone anniversary. But it would do little, he said, to ease a pain awakened every time he sees a clock that reads 9:11.
“We still live it everyday,” he said. “It’s everywhere for us.”
Ogonowski will mark Sept. 11 in Arlington National Cemetery, where his cousin, a veteran of the Korean War, will be buried in honor. Ogonowski said he remains stunned the ceremony fell on Sept. 11, of all days, but that it could not be more appropriate.
“It’s fitting,” he said. “He was a great man.”
Like others, McGinty, 55, felt conflicting emotions. She does not want the sacrifices made that day, and in the wars that followed, to fade from memory. Yet Sept. 11 is hard enough without feeling like the whole world is watching.
“You don’t want people to forget,” said McGinty, who lives in Connecticut. “A lot of people did very brave things. But I am glad we can have a little more peace this year.”
Regardless of the tenor of Sept. 11 commemorations, Sept. 12 can be just as hard, she said. “The world goes back to its routine,” she said. “But Mike’s still not here for us. He’s still not coming through the back door.”
At this time last year, Lemack avoided virtually all media, knowing it would only upset her. She hoped this year might be easier, but about a week ago an immense sadness came over her, like it does every year. “I’ve learned to accept it,” she said.
Lemack said she will not attend any memorial ceremonies this year. Instead, she will visit friends by the water, and remember her mother with those who loved her.
“It’s mom,” she said of the get-together. “My mom wasn’t Sept. 11.”
The shared grief of Sept. 11 has forged many friendships, and Hunt and White have grown close. A couple of weeks ago, as the familiar ache from the anniversary returned, they arranged to meet at the Sept. 11 memorial in Boston. It was raining, but they sat there just the same, trading stories about their children through the years, and about the hard years without them.
“It tears at my heart,” Hunt said through tears. “I just miss my son.”Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.