9/11 Widow Remembers Her Husband and How She Turned Grief Into Support for Others
David Laychak was among the 189 people killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He was a civilian employee for the Department of the Army, working as a budget analyst. He was one of nine people with Hawai‘i ties who died in the 9/11 attacks. He was survived by his two children and his wife Laurie Laychak, who grew up on O‘ahu and graduated from Hawai‘i Baptist Academy.
Laurie Laychak lives in Virginia and says she will be preparing flowers and taking them to the memorials around her community on Friday. She’ll also be attending the 9/11 Observance Ceremony hosted by the Secretary of the Defense at the Pentagon Memorial on Saturday. The Conversation’s Russell Subiono sat down with Laurie to remember her late husband, and learn how she turned her grief into a way to help other people. (Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
SUBIONO: Can you share with us what kind of guy David was?
LAYCHAK: It's always so challenging to try to encapsulate somebody's essence in words. But I will say that time and time again, after he died, so many people said he made you feel like he was your best friend. And that he just no matter if it was the head of the department or the person who was taking the trash out. That didn't matter. He just treated everybody as if they were the most special person. I know often after somebody dies, people place them on a pedestal. But people would tease and say, "But Dave already walked on water." I mean, he was just such a kind, gentle person, and very patient and he's just, just a rare, a rare gem.
SUBIONO: From what I understand, he was pretty athletic, too. Did he participate in a lot of different kinds of sports? Did he have a favorite?
LAYCHAK: Yes, he loved sports. Growing up, he was a middle son of three boys. And then he had a sister, who was younger, too. But those three boys were just always playing in sports. So he played in varsity basketball, baseball, football. He was quarterback for his high school football team. And then he played football in college. And then, you know, as you leave school, your athletic choices are more limited. So he played on softball teams, he played golf, he played racquetball, he'd go running, biking — I mean, he just was an all around athlete, but he was always very humble about it. And he also coached our sons, all of the sports that our son ever played when he started at four years old. Dave was always coaching.
SUBIONO: Sounds like he was a very team oriented, a very family oriented guy.
LAYCHAK: Yes, he was. He just loved our family. He was one of those involved dads, he'd come home from work and I used to tease and say, he put his "play clothes" on. And then I'd have to call all three of the, quote, kids to dinner. You know, one of those dads who would bathe the kids and read them stories. While he played, I prepared dinner. We just kind of had a rhythm. And yeah, he just loved kids.
SUBIONO: In the last 20 years. Have you done anything specific to keep his memory alive? Do you have a memorial on September 11?
LAYCHAK: First of all, when you lose somebody, something you really fear is that they will be forgotten over time. And everybody deals with grief differently. But I know that for me, I felt like, especially having the kids, as well, I felt like I wanted to do everything I could to help keep his memory alive. So that wouldn't just be on anniversaries or on his birthday. It was just constant. So sometimes memorials are a way to do it, and I participated. Our local county has a memorial to the 22 citizens of our county that perished that day. So I was on the committee to develop and design the memorial. And then all the way to simple things that you do at home to, you know, keep photos up and talk about him. And on his birthday, I always make meatloaf. And my hopes are that as the kids grow up, then have their own families, they'll do the same. I am also a docent at the Pentagon Memorial, there's a memorial right outside the Pentagon, on the side of the building that was impacted. And so I volunteer my time by helping those visitors remember. It's just sad to me that here we are approaching the 20th anniversary and there are so many kids out there who weren't even born. I think at the beginning, we just couldn't imagine people not knowing about 9/11. But it's surprising what time does. And so I try to help do what I can to help people remember and not forget,
SUBIONO: You know, here, the memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor is something that is memorialized, something that I think kids are aware of. And I think 9/11 is something that should be just as important to remember. And I also read that in 2016, StoryCorps did a story on a grieving military widow and mentioned that you were working with her as a mentor. (Editor's note: This has been edited with the correct publication year.) Is that something that you still do? How did you come to that?
LAYCHAK: There's an organization that I devote a great deal of time to, and it's called TAPS. It stands for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. And TAPS is a support organization for military families who have lost a loved one. I first became aware of TAPS back in 2001, right after the attack occurred. And at that time, TAPS was a very small organization. As time went on the program, the TAPS program started expanding and they developed a peer mentor program. So I wasn't quite ready, I had to wait a few more years, until I felt that I could reach out to someone else and focus on them, without it triggering me so much that it wasn't going to be as helpful to them. But eventually that time came. So I went through the training, and I started then also just reading everything I could about — well, all along, I was reading everything I could about grief. But I started reading about then turning my grief into a way to help other people as a peer mentor. So I, the taps program will contact me and assign me somebody that they've paired me up with. And then I will work one on one with that family member. They're all widows, they try to find somebody who has a similar circumstance to you. And you just basically hold their hands and let them know that they're not alone. And at the same time, you are kind of helping grieve with them. Because you're further along in your grief journey, you're able to give them hope that they won't feel the same intensity of pain that they're feeling at that moment, that they won't feel that forever, that even if it's hard to believe, they can see somebody who is still living life and kind of piecing their world back together. And it's been, umm, I don't want to say rewarding. But when you have something so bad happen to you, I just feel like I'm compelled to, if I can make sense of it and use it to help somebody else, then it makes that loss a little less in vain and that gives it a little more purpose. So that's what I find is is kind of my new purpose in life is to just help others who were suffering.
SUBIONO: Has that opportunity also helped you as well does it? Does it play a role in helping you to continue to heal?
LAYCHAK: It does. It's interesting how, without that being the intention, it ends up helping. You know, you of course, start to see, you go back in time and you start to see how just completely devastated you were and you see how far you've come. So when it's day-to-day, it's not as obvious. But then when you are taking a moment in time to see, "Gosh, you know, five years ago, that's that's how I was and look how far I've come."
SUBIONO: When my grandmother passed away, I spoke at her funeral about how I saw parts of her personality in my mom and then my mom's siblings. Do you see David in your kids or other people in your life?
LAYCHAK: Absolutely. It's really fascinating to see that happen. My daughter was seven, Jenny was seven, and Zach, my son was nine when Dave died. So they were still young, they didn't have their full adult features. So as time goes by, I will see more and more of their features, being those that come from Dave. It's sometimes there can be a moment where it just really catches me and takes my breath away. I distinctly remember when Jenny had braces, and you can't really see what's going on with the teeth during the process of the braces. But she got in the car after they were taken off. And I said, "Well, let me see." And she smiled. And wow, it was like I was just hit by how much she had Dave smile and I didn't realize it until that very moment. Then there are other times where my son will have a facial expression or a gesture with his hands, and it just gives me chills because I think, he hadn't been watching Dave, all these years, yet it was in him and I would see that come out. And it's very special and just such a poignant moment when that happens, because you just are reminded that their essence is still with you.
SUBIONO: That's incredible. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our audience about Dave, or about the importance of remembering the people we've lost on 9/11?
LAYCHAK: There are so many lives that were lost on 9/11, and also in the past 20 years in the fight against terrorism. And each of those people that lost their lives, they had families, they had friends, they had colleagues, so many people were impacted by their death. And I just don't want us to forget. And I think about how amazing everybody was right after 9/11. There was just this kindness that people were showing to one another, and this unity that we felt. And I guess I would just like for people to remember that and kind of remember this 20th year marking that's been 20 years since the attack on our country, that we would remember that we are united and there's unfortunately so much divisiveness in the world today or in our country. And we have so much more that we have in common than we have different and how if we could just harness that again, and pause and try to be kind and appreciate one another. That would be my wish.
This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 7, 2021.