Haven Conley and Karleton Fyfe were high school sweethearts in Durham, N.C., and then went on to the University of North Carolina together. Married in 1994, they moved to Boston, where Karleton took a job as a bond analyst with John Hancock. They were in love with each other, and their adopted city.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he boarded American Airlines Flight 11, bound for a meeting in Los Angeles. The day before, the couple had learned that Haven was pregnant, and were overjoyed that their 18-month-old son, Jackson, would soon have a sibling.
But shortly after takeoff, terrorists flew the plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At 31, Haven Fyfe was a pregnant widow with a toddler.
Her mother and stepfather moved in with her. Her friend Jane O’Rourke took her to medical appointments, and was her birth coach, cutting baby Parker’s umbilical cord. Other friends cooked, cleaned, changed diapers, helped with financial planning. Fyfe says she had a wonderful therapist, also a widow with two young children.
“It really does take a village to heal from this,” she says. “When you lose your spouse, your whole world falls apart. It’s a day-to-day, moment-by-moment thing.”
Fyfe also found refuge in a support group for 9/11 widows with young children. In 2004, she married Dan Kiernan, the brother of one of the widows to whom she had grown close. “Dan was my first date, my practice date [after 9/11],” says Haven Fyfe Kiernan, the name she uses. Dan Kiernan, a middle school teacher in Westwood, adopted her two boys, and the couple have a third, Owen, who is 6.
Last September, 11 years after her husband was killed, Fyfe Kiernan opened The Wellness Room in Newton, a healing center she had dreamed about since her early social work days. Her personal tragedy, she says, only heightened her determination to create such a place.
She brought along her four closest friends, all therapists. Each of the five women, all of them mothers, has her own specialty — and her own experience of loss and renewal.
“For us, it’s an incredible way to make meaning out of our own stories and help those in need as we were once helped in our times of need,” says Fyfe Kiernan, 42.
On April 15, the Kiernan family — parents and the three boys — was at mile 20 of the Boston Marathon, with the other Wellness Room staffers, cheering on the runners. This was Fyfe Kiernan’s 19th year as a spectator. “I’m a marathon junkie,” she says.
Her stepbrother was running his first Boston, and her stepfather was awaiting him at the finish line. “It was so exciting, and then so horrible,” she says.
Both men were unhurt, but the explosions took her back to Sept. 11. “It’s amazing how it can all come to the surface again,” she says. “It just hit so close to home on so many levels.”
The next day, she got together with two other 9/11 widows. “I really craved being with my 9/11 family,” she says.
Since the Marathon bombings, she and other therapists at The Wellness Room have started their sessions by asking clients how it affected them. Some had even witnessed the explosions.
“It just triggers a lot in terms of life and the preciousness of life, and when life is taken away,” she says. “All of us Bostonians have had what feels like a personal attack. It’s two degrees of separation. It’s just affected everyone.”
In fact, she is thinking of starting a group at The Wellness Room “to process this creepiness.”
Before 9/11, Haven Fyfe was an oncology social worker at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital. When her husband died, she quit and stayed home with her sons. In 2004, she and O’Rourke, who was her supervisor when she was an intern, opened a practice in Brookline.
Last year, with the practice overflowing, Fyfe Kiernan decided to make her distant dream a reality. “I didn’t want to be turning away people who had needs, so I bit the bullet and asked my nearest and dearest friends to come with me,” she says.
The result is a suite of offices in a former Newtonville church, light and airy, with white walls and splashes of color in rugs, fresh flowers, and prints on the walls. There’s a small kitchen, and the place has a comfortable, friendly vibe. Clients will often stop in before group meetings or stay after to chat over coffee or tea.
“We are like family here,” says Fyfe Kiernan, whose warmth matches the decor.
After Sept. 11, 2001, she kept a low profile, trying to protect her family’s privacy. But the Internet intervened. “With Google, people come in knowing everything about me,” she says with a rueful smile. “The days of the anonymous therapist are over.”
It’s OK with her, since her experience lends some credibility to her work. At The Wellness Room, she specializes in loss and bereavement, young widows and widowers, pregnancy loss and parenting issues.
“I don’t talk all about myself, but they know I’ve been through loss, and that in itself is comforting,” Fyfe Kiernan says.
She knows what it's like to deal with parenting while grieving. “It’s a beast,” she says. “You’re not only dealing with your own grief, but with your kids’ grief, and also with grief over what your spouse has lost. So it’s threefold.”
She adds: “Karleton was so incredibly present. His family was his whole world.”
Soon, she will start a support group at the center on life after loss. “It’s how to integrate your loss into the next chapter of your life,” she says. “There’s a lot of guilt around wanting to be remarried.”
Wellness Room therapist O’Rourke’s specialty is loss and bereavement, and coping with diagnosis and disease. She brings both a personal and professional perspective on medical loss. Her beloved mentor died from uterine cancer just before O’Rourke got her master’s degree in social work from Smith College.
And in the early years of HIV/AIDS, O’Rourke asked to deal with as many of those cases as possible at the Brigham. Later, she became the first HIV social worker in Maine, while working at Maine Medical Center. When she moved back to Massachusetts, she took a job as the gyn-oncology supervisor at the Brigham and Dana-Farber.
“I’m drawn to things that significantly change someone’s life,” says O’Rourke, 56. “I just find it’s a time when people are extremely vulnerable and open to change and different ways of thinking. It’s formidable work that is incredibly rewarding.”
Rachel Segall’s specialty at The Wellness Room is couples counseling and parenting challenging children. Segall, who has been married nearly 20 years, says “longterm relationships take a lot of work,” and go through various stages.
Susan Andrew’s specialty is divorce recovery and parenting after divorce. She has known
Fyfe Kiernan since both were interns at Mass. General. Andrew, who was divorced when her son was 2, says she tries to help people understand that grief isn’t permanent.
“I do think divorce attacks the body, mind, and spirit just the way illness does,” she says. “People need help and they don’t always go about it in a healthy way if there’s a lot of anger and hurt.” Andrew remarried and has two more children from her second marriage.
The fifth social worker, Nancy Bloomstein, is “our generalist, working with life’s transitions,” says Fyfe Kiernan.
There’s also a body worker, Judi MacKenzie, who does Reiki and Shiatsu massage. “I had my own health issues and I found alternative treatments helped tremendously,” MacKenzie says.
Despite the weighty issues dealt with, the center’s focus is not on illness. “We come from a wellness approach,” says Fyfe Kiernan. “Depression and anxiety are part of life; we all have sad seasons and challenging times.”
In September, it will be 12 years since her first husband, Karleton, died. Their sons, Jackson and Parker, are 13 and 11. Fyfe Kiernan says that opening The Wellness Room has helped with her own healing.
“It certainly was one of the pivotal parts of my life,” she says of her husband’s death. “There will never be any meaning or purpose to Karleton’s loss, but in terms of what I’ve gone through, and what my kids have gone through, it immensely helps me to hold other people through their healing years.”
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.