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Grief in Holiday Wrapping
Family of Terrorism Victim Copes by Adapting Christmas Traditions

Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writer

December 25, 2001; Page B1

The Christmas stockings are still hung tenderly on the stairwell, each one monogrammed with the name of a different family member: Chandler and Drake, Donn Erik and Shelley.But this year, a new tradition is mixed with the old. Three of them have each left something in the stocking of the one who is no longer here.

"Let's write a letter to Mommy," Donn Marshall told his 2-year-old daughter, Chandler, and his 3-year-old son, Drake, while preparing the stockings for Christmas Eve, "and tell her that we're thinking of her." And with that, their thoughts went to their mother, Shelley Marshall, who was 37 when she died Sept. 11 during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Somehow today, the family will face its first Christmas without her.

"She was the soul of the family," said her husband, Donn, who lives in the Charles County community of Marbury. "I might have been the body, the muscles, the bones. But she was the soul and the spirit."

Christmas is grafted with grief this year for thousands whose loved ones died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. But the absence of loved ones is perhaps most piercing in homes with young children, where spouses are left to shoulder traditions once borne by two and somehow kindle the holiday magic for little ones who still believe in Santa Claus.

"It's tough because there's a focus on family when everybody's home for the holidays," said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Inc. "The most important thing is that families should do what feels right to them, and it's not up to anyone else to judge them."

Donn Marshall, now 37, had dropped his children off that morning at the Pentagon, where his wife was a Defense Intelligence Agency worker. He said goodbye to her outside the children's day-care center, then went to his Crystal City office, where he worked for the same agency. After hearing that the hijacked commercial jet had hit the Pentagon, he raced back there and found his children. But not Shelley.

Now it is with the utmost sense of purpose that Marshall has taken up his wife's holiday role, all the while fending off his grief. He took a week off from work so he could fully devote himself to Christmas shopping, carefully planning his trips to the malls early in the morning to avoid the crowds he can no longer bear. He has been even more careful in deciding what to do -- and what not to do -- during this holiday season, sometimes trusting his gut, other times relying on the advice of a counselor, to make sure he does nothing to further wound the psyches of his children. "I can't afford to screw it up," he said.

So, this Christmas, memory has become his most trusted friend -- and his worst enemy. He forces himself to remember the holiday traditions his wife helped preserve -- the way she wrapped the gifts or made the holiday doughnuts or provided a monogrammed stocking for everyone on Christmas morning, even a houseguest or a family pet -- while struggling to keep the memories at arm's distance.
"Last night, we made the doughnuts, and she wasn't there," Marshall said last week. "People tell you to cling to traditions. But sometimes, traditions can be really hard when you're used to another pair of hands."

Sometimes, the emotion bubbles through, like when three dozen or so of his neighbors descended on his house one Sunday this month. They brought food, sang patriotic songs and left him with more than $4,000 they had collected for him and the children.

"I saw him sort of wipe a tear away," said Melvene Butler, who helped arrange the event.

Standing there in his living room, Marshall felt like Jimmy Stewart in that most popular of Christmas movies. "It's like it was '[It's] a Wonderful Life,' " he recalled.

Marshall believes his children can sense that emotion, particularly the older one. One day recently, Drake handed him a piece of paper with two snowman stickers on it. The boy told his father that he had put an extra snowman on the page, just for him. "So I wouldn't think about Mommy and be sad," Marshall said. Of course, he hasn't been able to put his wife from his mind, especially while doing the Christmas shopping. He said he "found myself more often thinking of her. Thinking of things I need to tell her, and thinking, 'I can't.' " Still, he persevered.

The kids, he proudly proclaimed, are going "to have a huge Christmas." "You're not going to be able see the tree," he said. A few of those gifts are from their mother; she helped buy them before she died.

Marshall will let the kids know that, though he said, "The counselors have told me, 'After this year, don't do that. It's confusing. . . . 'Mommy's gone, but Mommy's giving me presents?' " Marshall bought most of the gifts, and, for the first time, he wrapped them. His job had always been to assemble the gifts. "I put them together, and she wrapped them," he said. "She loved to wrap presents. For me, it was an ordeal. For her, it was an exact science. When she finished with a package, it was a work of art." As Chandler and Drake rip open all those packages this morning, their paternal grandparents, from Morgantown, W.Va., will be looking on. Then they'll all go Shelley's parents' house in Herndon for Christmas dinner.

There will not be an overtly religious tone this Christmas, just lots of gifts and jolly old Saint Nick. "Maybe next year, I'll be able to talk about peace on Earth," Marshall said. "This year, I'll just talk about Santa Claus." Except last night, when he gathered his two children before their stockings. "I don't want it to be a morbid occasion," Marshall said. "I think the letters will be nice. I think it will be a way to incorporate Shelley into Christmas. . . . I've got to find ways to incorporate her into their lives." He intends to fill Shelley's stocking this way for Christmases to come, saving the children's letters for the day when it all will make more sense to them. And his letter? He probably will burn it, he said, in keeping with an ancient belief that the smoke will reach "the spirits in the next world." "It's between me and her, and nobody else," he said.

Copyright 2005 © The Shelley A. Marshall Foundation
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