What Stays With Us

Jan Hoffman wrote over 75 Portraits of Grief.

The Portraits were those 200-word profiles the New York Times ran of the nearly 3,000 janitors, bankers, secretaries, lawyers, dishwashers who died in the World Trade Center.

Ms. Hoffman sat at her desk and called family after family, hoping to find out how these lost lives had “moved on the planet.” And “hardball rules of journalism,” she said, “went out the window.”

She cried with families – more than she’s ever cried before at work. She waited quietly as the voice on the other end of the phone heaved and sobbed, was undone by grief. She fell in love with the fireman whose parents said, “You know, he wasn’t a saint. He was a giant pain in the ass.”

If you like what I wrote, she’d tell the families, you take the credit because it came from you. “If you don’t like it,” she’d say, “blame it on me.”

Then, when she got off the phone, she’d start typing up a 200-word glimpse into the life lost. If you asked her, she’d tell you – she couldn’t emphasize enough – how humbling the phone calls and the writing and the whole work was.

But the thing that stayed with Jan Hoffman as she did portrait after portrait, the thing that would stay with her years after they were all done, was that how these people moved on the planet wasn’t really about being a fireman or janitor or banker.

“Almost no one talked about that person’s job,” she said. “It was about love. It was about singularity. It was about connection.”

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