CLIFTON, N.J. — Each morning and night for the past decade, Sandra Grazioso has followed the same ritual: She greets her two sons each day with "Good morning, boys," and whispers, "Good night, boys," each night.
The last time she was able to say it to them in person was just before Sept. 11, 2001, the day both her sons were killed in the World Trade Center, one floor apart.
"It's hard. I can't tell you it's not. It's very hard," Grazioso said. "You rehash, but it never goes away. You still remember it like it was yesterday instead of 10 years ago."
Tim Grazioso, 42, was a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald on the 104th floor of the north tower. His brother John, 41, worked for the same firm, one floor above.
Sandra Grazioso, like some others who lost loved ones on 9/11, is finding the upcoming 10-year anniversary a particularly painful one. It's more than just another year gone by. A decade is a solid, tangible block of time by which most people measure life's milestones, she said. In the case of her sons, it measures everything they've missed.
"They lost 10 years of their lives, of being a father, of being a husband, and they loved their children," she said.
Tim, who commuted between Gulf Stream, Fla., and New York, and his wife, Debbie, had twin girls, Brianna and Lauren, now 22. John and his wife, Tina, of Middletown, N.J., had three children: Kathryn, now 17, Kristen, 14, and Michael, who was 10 months old when his father died and will turn 11 on Nov. 11.
Their faces surround Grazioso, now 75, in dozens of framed photographs in her modest, immaculately kept apartment in Clifton, N.J. She has pictures of her smiling sons, her grandchildren and her 48-year-old daughter, Carolee, her only remaining child.
She's often asked how she can stand to live with so many visual reminders, including several mementos from Sept. 11 — even a photo a relative took on that day of smoke billowing from the towers where her sons died.
"We can either hide in the closet or not," she said. "If we can't talk about them, who can? I had all the pictures up right from the beginning."
She also has dozens of letters, cards and gifts that were sent to her by strangers touched by the magnitude of her loss and her resilience.
"People say I'm an inspiration, but I don't think of it that way," Grazioso said. "I just think of it as I went through something that I can't do anything about."
Grazioso has found enormous comfort from a support group formed by mothers of those who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial firm that lost more than 650 employees — or two-thirds of its workforce — in the World Trade Center attacks.
The New Jersey "Cantor Moms," as the group is called, meet once a month at a local Applebee's restaurant. Grazioso said she's found in the women kindred spirits who understand things no one else can comprehend: their very private loss being on public display, the pain of the final phone call — or lack of one — from loved ones in the towers, the striking similarities among their sons: young, successful, newly married or fathers to young children.
Their discussions don't always revolve around 9/11. It's developed into a camaraderie in which the women attend plays or craft fairs, go out to dinner or help one another through the difficult moments such as what would have been their children's birthdays.
Grazioso, whose short-cropped blond hair and quick smile make her look far younger than her 75 years, still works. She said her job as an office manager at a funeral home, time spent with family, attending church where she sings in the choir and speaking to local students about 9/11 are her ways of coping.
"Students always ask me if I'm bitter; I say no," Grazioso said. "They ask: 'Why not?' They say: 'How do you get through it?'"
Her answer is always the same: "Faith, friends and family."
Grazioso plans to mark the 10th anniversary by going with family to ground zero. Although she was not picked in the lottery that determines who gets to read the names during the ceremony, she wants those who hear the names of her sons — read one after the other — to know what special men they were.
"I don't want anybody to ever forget what happened to them," Grazioso said. "Not just Timmy and Johnny, but the 3,000 people that died there. Don't ever forget them. Like all these people dying in the war. Celebrate their lives, not their deaths — and we do."