9/11: Tragedy Through the Eyes of a Child… What Do Parents Say to Their Children?

With all of the 9/11 tributes airing this past week in honor of the 10th anniversary of that horrible day emotions have resurfaced and questions are again being asked. Why? How could this happen? What if it were me or someone I love in those planes or buildings? Will it happen again?

These are not only questions many adults are still asking, but for many of us as parents we are finding ourselves searching for answers for our children as well. And what do you say to your children that will be comforting, reassuring and make sense?

I am forever grateful that my grandchildren were very young at the time (ages 3 & 4) and because of that I had the option to shield them from a first-hand view of those horrific life-changing scenes that flashed across our television screens. Although there is an enormous difference in the degree of the impact on a child’s mind when they experience something happening in real time versus watching an anniversary documentary of the events, the questions still need answers.

Whether the impact was direct or indirect, real time or a result of becoming aware of the event through a documentary, the message for most children is that their world is not safe.

When we want our children to approach the world with a positive mindset, a trusting heart and a love of life how do we explain the horrendous acts that caused so much pain and suffering? What can we say to reduce their fears, ease their concerns and satisfy their confusion?

Both of my grandchildren watched the documentaries this past week, Kaitlyn now 14 and Zach almost 13. To be honest I still wanted to protect them and keep those images from their minds. I take my responsibility to protect them emotionally and physically very serious. But I knew in my heart that this is now a part of their world and somehow I had to help them reconcile the tragic events of 9/11 with this amazingly wonderful life the Divine promises us.

And so I did my best. I don’t think there is any one correct answer that will suffice. I relied on my own experience as a child living in Massachusetts during the time that President Kennedy was assassinated. Although nearly every American took losing our president in such a brutal way very personally, it was much different for those of us in Massachusetts. President Kennedy was one of us. He and his family had always been a part of our life…they were our “royal family” long before the country and the world were introduced to the Kennedy’s in the White House.
In Massachusetts our local nightly news always had something to share about the Kennedy family. It seemed like there was always something happening at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport. Caroline got her pony and named it “macaroni”, John-John was always digging in the sand at the beach and they always had tons of cousins over…swimming and sailing right in our own backyard in Cape Cod.

I remember my Dad recounting stories of times when Teddy Kennedy had come to town, visiting construction sites and once helping with local building codes that hindered contractors from doing their job. He would say, “Today I shook the hand of our future President!” And Jack (before he was president) stopping by sharing a cup of coffee when he was running for State Senator. In Massachusetts, most everyone had a story of a first-hand encounter with at least one of the Kennedy’s. The grief was very personal to residents of Massachusetts when our country lost it's President. He was more than the President; he was one of us who went on to become the President.

It was a typical day at school. We were all busy at our desks when suddenly an announcement came that we were being sent home early. No explanation was given. “Collect your things, line up at the front entrance to board your bus.”

As I was climbing up the steps of my bus I looked up and saw my bus-driver, Charlie, sitting in the driver’s seat with his hands firmly placed on the steering wheel, blankly staring straight ahead. He had tears streaming down his face. It scared me.

Charlie had been my bus-driver every year so we had developed a relationship. I asked Charlie why he was crying. As he lowered his head, in a very soft cracking voice, he said, “Our President has been killed.”

All of the children within ear shot gasped. Some started to cry. I remember just wanting to hurry and get home. I needed to find out from parents if it was true. It wasn’t that I thought Charlie was lying to me…I just needed this horrible news to come from my parents and I needed that secure, warm and loving hug that I just knew they would have for me. I was really really scared, but I didn’t know exactly why.

My mind raced with hundreds of questions during the ride home. Why would anyone want to kill President Kennedy? Who killed him? Where was he killed? What about John-John and Caroline, his children. Do they know yet? Who told them? Where they in school when they found out too?

            When I arrived at home, I found both of my parents sitting motionless in front of the television. They had been crying. I recall receiving that hug that I had needed and for a brief moment feeling that this was really bad but somehow I felt we would be alright. And this is how it remained for almost the entire week. Friends and family members would stop by and share their shock and sadness. It was similar to when my grandfather had passed away.

And then the most horrible thing happened. I remember it like it was yesterday. As we all sat glued to the television watching the man responsible for taking away our President being led through the police station, another man jumped forward and shot and killed him right before our eyes. My mother screamed and grabbed me away from the television. I imagine she thought she was protecting me, but it was too late. That image of a man, any man, being shot and killed was forever etched in my mind. I had never felt more frightened or confused. My world was never the same from that point on.
And now, over 50 years later, I witnessed my grandchildren being affected in a very personal way as they watched the events of 9/11 unfold through the eyes of those who experienced this tragedy in real time.
My instincts took me back to that time in November of 1963 when I was a child and gave my grandchildren the one thing that I needed more than anything. The truth.

As my parents had shared with me, I now shared with Kaitlyn and Zach. Life is about choices. For the most part, people are good and caring and loving and will do their best to make positive choices. And others simply will not. This is a fact that we cannot escape and need to accept and yet at the same time we must always be mindful that regardless of what others choose, we have the choice as to how we will react to those choices.

Based on the selfish despicable horrible choices of others we are left with two options. The first is to allow the devastatingly negative choice of one misguided destructive person change how we feel and perceive the entire world around us by giving in to fear and mistrust or, second, we can fight that urge and put our energy into remaining faithful to the goodness we believe lives in every person that the Divine created.  
Both Kailtyn and Zach responded to my proposal of options with a resounding “Yes! We want to choose to keep believing in what is good and positive.” At which point we shared hugs and kisses and smiles as if to say “Yeah we are not going to let this change us, we are going to be strong!” But that only lasted a short time until the reality hit Zach and he asked, “But, how do we take what we think and get it into our hearts?”

And that is the real dilemma. We can think what is the best response, what is the positive reaction but how do we actually integrate that into our hearts? How do we get to a point where we feel the inner-peace that we had before?
“By remembering and focusing on what is right and beautiful in our lives and in our world”, I told them. “Whenever you think about that one evil person who chose to act upon the ultimate degree of negativity, think of the hundreds and thousands who chose to help others, to risk and sacrifice their lives for the lives of others and those who have worked tirelessly since that day to make sure something like this never happens again.
Choose to remember that day as a day that showed the world how truly brave and incredible people are even in the midst of personal horror and loss. Let that day be a day that inspires you to be the best person you can be. And then count your blessings each and every day…fill your heart with gratitude for all the people you have in your life that bring you joy and love.”


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