When Dahlia Gruen woke up on her 10th birthday, her dining room was decorated while baby videos played in the background. At school, her friends sang her “Happy Birthday.”
Later in the day, Gruen and her peers were rushed into an emergency assembly. Despite the urgent whispering in the room, Gruen remained ignorant of the full impact of the situation.
“I didn’t really understand it, even once we had the assembly,” Gruen recalls. “I saw my parents home early sitting on the front steps, and they sat me down and explained to me what happened.”
Planes hit the World Trade Center on Gruen’s 10th birthday. On her 19th birthday, the SESP freshman attended temple — including a memorial service for those who died on 9/11 — and hung out with some friends. In the past nine years, Gruen has learned to acknowledge both mourning and joy on Sept. 11 through her website, birthdayspirit.org.
“It was really, really hard at the start for me, on a selfish basis, that people had come and taken away my birthday,” Gruen says with the air of someone who has explained herself many times. “[The website] wasn’t meant to take away from the mourning that everybody else felt in any way.”
Gruen created Birthday Spirit with her father’s help just a few months after the attacks. She sorts through submissions and posts her favorites while her father is responsible for the day-to-day maintenance. The website includes old and new suggestions on mixing celebration and mourning, such as lighting an extra candle in honor of victims of the attack or bringing a cake to local firefighters, in order to support those with 9/11 birthdays.
“I have stopped celebrating my birthday because of all the negative responses from my peers and other people,” one user wrote. “Thanks to this inspiring site, I decided to celebrate my birthday this year.”
Gruen says she received hundreds of personal submissions during the month of August, but she only posts excerpts from a few of them.
“I don’t think it’s my place to post a whole long story about how they weren’t sure if they wanted to have a child or whatever,” the Boston native says. “Some people write in asking that it not be posted. But within that, if there’s like a broader couple lines, that’s what I’ll put up.”
The number of submissions, which can range from just a handful to dozens per day, peaks in late August and early September, according to Gruen. A recent mention in the New York Times and radio interviews helped to boost the site. She tries to respond to every post but when activity rises, she struggles to keep up.
“I don’t want to just send out like, ‘thank you so much for responding’ and let it go,” Gruen says. “I want to engage in a personal discussion.”
Occasionally, Gruen participates in ongoing conversations with visitors to Birthday Spirit. Although she has never met them in person, Gruen exchanges birthday cards and e-mails with users.
She sparked one of these strong connections when a mother and daughter sent submissions within minutes of each other.
“[The mother] hadn’t realized her daughter was having a hard time with her birthday,” Gruen says of her sympathy for the pair. “The daughter was a couple years younger than I am. She was really appreciative and sweet.”
Visitors to Birthday Spirit are not solely Sept. 11 babies; other visitors include parents whose children have 9/11 birthdays, especially those with children born after 2001. Gruen believes the newer generation of children is still aware of the significance of Sept. 11, 2001, whether they can remember the actual event or not.
“Even if you don’t remember the exact day, when you turn on the radio on your birthday and it’s a memorial service, you are aware of the mourning,” she says.
Gruen intends to maintain the website while studying human development and psychological services at Northwestern University. In high school, she worked for Samaritans — a suicide hotline — and led self-esteem classes. She gives few details about her experience helping others, and one gets the sense that she doesn’t feel comfortable revealing the problems and secrets people trust her with.
Although counseling plays a big role in her plans, Gruen is considering a double major, perhaps in business or economics and, like many other freshmen, is unsure which activities and clubs she will join. She considers the website to be a big part of her life and a contributing factor in her choice of major.
“I don’t like to brag about it and talk to a lot of people about it,” Gruen says, before pausing. “When I think about who I am, it’s definitely one of my proudest accomplishments.”
Gruen will continue to reach out to those struggling with 9/11 birthdays for as long as possible, but is unsure of how necessary her website will be once younger generations stop seeing the significance of that day. She predicts that Birthday Spirit will remain popular for major anniversaries of the attacks and she just started planning a re-launch for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“People have said, ‘oh, you have a terrible birthday,’” Gruen says, but she doesn’t fully agree. “It’s become part of who I am. I am constantly dealing and I am constantly trying to make it better and change it for the good.”