For these parents who lost their daughter on 9/11, life couldn't stop. They also had a son.
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Anything but Average

The Cottoms were a pretty typical American family before Sept. 11, 2001. Clifton and Michelle were the parents of two wonderful kids: Isiah and his younger sister, Asia. The kids were close, and the foursome was a family unit that was full of love and life.


All photos from Michelle and Clifton Cottom, used with permission.

But all of that changed on one heartbreaking day.

When Asia was just 11 years old, her life was cut tragically short.

A passenger on United Flight 77, headed to California for a school field trip, Asia died when the plane crashed into the Pentagon.


Michelle, an equal employment opportunity officer for a federal agency in Washington, D.C., and Clifton, a behavioral technician with the District of Columbia Public System, were suddenly faced with every parent's worst nightmare: a life without their child. And to say that her brother, who was 17 at the time, was devastated would be a gross understatement.

Following Asia's death, the Cottoms' lives changed in an instant.

No parent imagines losing a child — and so no parent is prepared to move on in life without her. In the blink of an eye, the Cottoms, still parents to 17-year-old Isiah, had to learn to function in a whole new way.

"We just went through the motions," Michelle said about their lives immediately following the plane crash. They faced life by waking up and taking each minute as it came. "We tried to make some sense of what was really going on," she shared.

Despite being a big brother with a hole in his heart, Isiah was a source of strength for his parents. And that strength helped them with their own grief.

“They played, laughed, and cried together," Michelle told me of Isiah and Asia's relationship.

Isiah was a rock for his parents, even while grieving the loss of his best friend. "He helped his father get closer to God by illustrating his faith," Michelle said. "Isiah dropped to his knees and immediately began to pray when we told him about the plane crash."

Michelle and Clifton admired the amount of strength and maturity their son possessed at the young age of 17.

Losing a child is hard enough. Losing a child to an act of terrorism that is the center of national attention adds another layer of complexity.

"When a tragic world event such as 9/11 occurs, it riddles individual families with unimaginable trauma and pain," Dr. Fran Walfish, a relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, told me.

Like many Americans who were devastated by the atrocities committed on 9/11, some of Isiah's peers also experienced feelings of vengefulness. And so just as he had inspired them with his maturity and faith, Isiah's parents helped him deal with the anger, hate, and pain that swirled around him every day.

“He had to deal with the pressure and questions that came to him from his classmates and friends. All of who, just like a lot of Americans, wanted revenge," Michelle recalls. Isiah faced all of these challenges and more with grace and strength.

“We instilled in him that revenge and hate was not an option even though everything around us was going to war."

There is no "new normal."

I asked Michelle if there's any way to settle into a new normal after such a devastating loss. The answer was clear: “Losing a child is not normal, so there will never be a 'new normal.' We live each day one at a time," she explained.

When it comes to parenting, people who have more than one child can't just check out completely when one dies to deal with their own grief. But as Michelle points out, Isiah was 17 and didn't require as much hands-on parenting as a younger child would. Still, even with an older child, there are pitfalls and ways that grieving parents could respond that don't help the child who is left behind.

"The parents had two children and were now left with one," Dr. Walfish noted. "It would be understandable if they held tighter and overprotected their surviving 17-year-old son."

And yet, that wasn't what the Cottoms did. They gave their son room to grow and to grieve. "We always talked to him about his feelings, hurt, pain, anger, and frustrations," Michelle said.

While some parents of younger kids might need to rely on their adult friends and family members to fill in the gaps and nurture their child as they too continue to grieve, Isiah was older and had a meaningful friendship in place to help him through the early stages. During the initial weeks and months following Asia's death, Isiah spent a lot of time with his cousin Mike, who was one year older and with whom both he and Asia had a good friendship.

As time went on and the Cottoms worked through their pain, they were able to arrive at a place together where their daughter and sister remains alive and well in their hearts, minds, and souls.

“We talk about her often and daily," Michelle said. “It is not painful — it is thoughtful and on purpose. Our memories are full of joy not the pain and sting of death."

Following Asia's death on 9/11, the Cottoms received an outpouring of financial contributions.

Many people and places — including schools, churches, boys' and girls' clubs, social clubs, companies, and more — sent money in Asia's name.

“This outpouring of generosity is what motivated us to create a scholarship fund in honor of our daughter," Michelle said. “Asia loved to learn, and even at 11 years old, [she] had big plans to attend college in California to become a 'baby doctor' — a pediatrician."

An added touch of heart-wrenching meaning was found in exactly how people gave: Many of the financial gifts were made in denominations of 11, such as 11 cents, $11, $111, and so on, symbolizing Asia's age at the time of her death.

The result of the generosity of others and the Cottoms is the Asia SiVon Cottom (ASC) Memorial Scholarship Fund, a 501(c)3 charitable organization that was created to honor Asia's life.

“Awards are made to deserving students who excel academically with special consideration given to students interested in math, science, and information technology," Michelle explained.

To date, the Cottoms have awarded over $250,000 in scholarships to students through their fund. “Our ASC scholars are now teachers, nurses, analysts, contract negotiators, engineers, and providing legal services, to name a few," Michelle said.

The Cottoms also wrote a book called "Asia's New Wings: The Untold Story of a Young Girl Lost on 9/11."

“It is a story about Asia's life, passion, legacy, and how to move on after experiencing loss," Michelle said. The book talks about how the Cottom family turned the most tragic thing that could have happened to them into “an opportunity to immortalize Asia and educate a nation."

Book jacket from "Asia's New Wings: The Untold Story of a Young Girl Lost on 9/11."

“We were motivated to write the book because many people keep telling us that we needed to share Asia's story … many had no idea children were lost during the 9/11 terrorist attacks," Michelle shared.

The Cottoms have found that the book not only helps parents who have lost a child, but also those dealing with other types of grief — in addition to allowing them to find “some level of closure" themselves.

“The Bible says a peace that surpasses all understanding. We have learned to accept what God allows whether we like it or not," Michelle said. “We have learned how to live on."

The Cottoms have learned that as time goes on, so does their love.

Losing a child is “unnatural and unfair," Michelle said. Parenting after such tragic loss will forever be an experience that only those who have lost one of multiple children can fully understand. But through their story we see the role that faith, friends, honesty, and love played in helping them all stay whole and make it through.

Today, Michelle says that despite the ways in which their life might seem drastically different, the only thing that's really changed is that Asia is no longer here on earth. They are still her parents. And she is forever their daughter.

“She remains alive and well in the hearts of all who knew and loved her."

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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