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Legacy of 9/11: new ways to grieve, heal

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The dozens of votive candles flickering at the base of a makeshift memorial give Santa Mejia great comfort. She lost her cousin Maria Rodriguez in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

The tribute, decked with flowers, Dominican and American flags, and pictures of some of those who died, also has large pieces of paper where passersby scribble messages of support: "Stay Strong!" "We'll always love you!" "God Bless America and the Dominican Republic!"

Like the tributes for the victims of the Sept. 11th terror attacks - many of which still stand scattered around Manhattan - this shrine in the Washington Heights neighborhood symbolizes an increasingly public form of mourning that is taking root in America.

It's one that transcends individual religions while drawing on their varied traditions. It is also a more celebratory form of mourning than somber funerals of the past.

"It's helped me immensely," says Ms. Mejia, hugging her arms around herself. "Today, at least, I can talk. Before it was just tears."

The public memorials provide space for healing communal - as well as family and individual - grief. Diversity is their hallmark.

Many are similar to Buddhist shrines. Some are draped with American flags, others with garlands from the Hindu tradition. Still others are smothered dozens of Teddy Bears. Almost all of them are warmed by candles from the Roman Catholic and Jewish traditions and dotted all over with of messages of love and stories, often the witty kind you'd associate with an Irish wake.

"We can look at the rites of grieving as a type of language, a way to express ourselves," says Joshua Miller, a professor of social work at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "And just like language, they're evolving in a way that is shaking free of traditional constraints - creating a mosaic of traditions."

Several decades of change

The change that's become so evident as a result of Sept. 11th has been evolving quietly for the past few decades.


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