On September 11, 2001, my husband, David, was killed by terrorists in the attack on the World Trade Center. We had just celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. We had met each other over the Atlantic on a flight from London to New York. He was English and I am American. It was a match made in heaven, or certainly pretty close to it given our altitude at the time. We had three beautiful, happy children to show from our years together. Emma was twelve, and identical twins, Ian and Matthew, were ten. We had a fun family vacation planned for November when we were going to celebrate our anniversary and my upcoming fortieth birthday. Never did we anticipate the turn of events on that terrible day.
It started out as a very normal day. No different from any other. David got up and got ready for work while we all still slept peacefully in our beds. He didn't go in to say good-bye to the children because he didn't like to wake them, so that morning the children never got to kiss him. He always woke me up, though, and I still remember his kiss good-bye that soon-to-be-dreadful morning.
School had just started for the children the previous week, and all three were enjoying being back with their friends and adjusting to their new schedules and teachers. It was fun until that day.
I was at home when I heard the news, just on my way out the door. My brother called to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I immediately tried calling David but got no reply on his work or cell phone. After that, I ran upstairs to turn on the television to see what exactly was going on. As soon as I saw the screen, my heart leapt and I felt dizzy. A gaping hole was in the same building David worked in, and right around the area of David's office.
Not knowing what to do, I called two friends who came over immediately. Frantically, I tried every way I knew how to get in touch with David. Then, miraculously, he called. I thought he was safe. I started talking away, asking questions, but he quickly interrupted me and told me that he was trapped on the eighty-third floor. He was surrounded by smoke and was with two female colleagues, whom he was trying to comfort and protect. They had no way of escape. David had been just below the point of impact when the plane struck the building because he had been in a meeting on a floor beneath his office. After the plane hit, people around him were discussing the need to evacuate when an announcement was made over the loudspeaker. Workers were told to return to their offices, and that there was no need to evacuate. David took the elevator up to his office on the eighty-third floor and waited for further instruction. Shortly thereafter, everyone realized the necessity of getting out of the building. Waiting patiently for an elevator to arrive, there was limited space with the mass exodus and David graciously stood back saying that he would wait for another elevator to arrive. One never did.
With this final phone call, David wanted the children and me to know that he loved us very much. He was trying to get out and had called 911, but the smoke was thick and his chest was tight and burning. He had plenty of water, though, and a handkerchief with which to cover his mouth. I promised him that I would try to get help and I instructed him on what to do in a smoke-filled room. I even made suggestions on how he could perhaps get to the stairs, using desks or chairs as a guiding path. After too brief a conversation, David said that he had to go because it was becoming difficult to talk. He was struggling to find air. Reluctantly, I hung up the phone.
Immediately, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of panic and helplessness. What could I do to help David? I had to be there for him. How could I save him? I frantically called 911, the New York City Police Department, our local police department, and anyone else I could think of who might be able to help. Everywhere was in chaos, and as time marched on and I was getting no closer to saving David, I knew time was running out. As my swell of fear and panic rose, I watched the towers fall.
Immediately, my first thought was for my children. I quickly called their two schools. I needed to know if the schools had said anything to the students, and if so, what. Additionally, if nothing had been announced, were they planning on telling the students anything at all? Both Emma's middle school and Ian and Matthew's elementary school assured me that nothing had been announced to the children, and that nothing would be said during the course of the day. The schools intended to shield the students until dismissal, at which point it was up to the parents to determine what would be said.
Confident my children were oblivious to the unfolding disaster, I took a deep breath. I needed time to clear my head, collect my composure as best as I could, and to think. I didn't know for sure that David was dead so I had to handle the situation as well as I was able when I picked up my kids from school. I needed to get some answers.
Sometime after my phone conversation with Emma's middle school, the strategy of the school changed. Among all the chaos, unbeknownst to me, an announcement was made informing the students that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Nothing was mentioned of the collapse. The children were then told that anyone who was worried about a family member could go into the office and try to reach his or her parents. Knowing that her dad worked there, Emma went to the office immediately. She tried calling home several times but the phone was busy and she couldn't get through. A friend of the family who'd been at the school that morning had seen Emma and came rushing over to my house to let me know that Emma was very worried and upset. As soon as I found out that Emma had learned something of the disaster, I quickly jumped in my friend's car and rushed to her school.
My friend arrived with the news of Emma's distress so shortly after the collapse of the towers that I hadn't had much time to think things through, and my head was still swimming. I was extremely frightened about telling the children because I knew how painful it would be for them. I also knew that I didn't really have any answers, or at least none that would be comforting.
Nervously, I rushed into the middle school office. Knowing why I was there, the administrator told me that Emma was waiting in the guidance counselor's office. Emma must have somehow heard my voice because we both emerged in the hallway at the same time. Emma was clearly distraught and crying hard. Her body was shaking. She looked at me with pleading, wishful eyes, and when I frowned and slightly shook my head, we collapsed into each other's arms, melting into each other, wanting to disappear. We stood motionless. The only movement was our shaking shoulders; the only sound was our sobs. Slowly, we crept out of the building, off to tell Emma's twin brothers at their elementary school.
At Ian and Matthew's school, the children knew nothing of the disaster. The office paged the boys and asked them to come upstairs. I'll never forget their innocent, smiling faces as, one at a time, they appeared in the hallway. Ian was the first to emerge, happy to see us but curious as to why Emma and I were at school. He thought that I was picking them up early because Emma had a doctor's appointment. From his distance, he couldn't see our red, tear-swollen eyes. As he neared, I reached out and hugged him tightly. He now knew something was wrong, but I didn't want to tell him until Matthew came up. I escorted him into a quite, private office and told him to wait until Matthew arrived. I'm sure he was terrified. There was a counselor with him and Ian became increasingly more concerned about what was going on. Once I found Matthew, I took him in to join his brother. I had wanted to sweep them away and tell them what was going on once we got home, but somehow events overtook me and the counselor started speaking about the tragedy. My children were both confused and distraught. We all sat there numb, crying, and upset. Not sure what to do, I picked up their belongings and we were silently driven home. The car ride was a surreal experience of touch, tears, and disbelief. Consumed with shock, we didn't speak until we entered our house, when I tried to explain what was going on with their father and the World Trade Center's collapse. It was nearly impossible for us to explain or comprehend anything.
Months later, the boys told me that when I told them the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane and collapsed, they weren't sure quite what was going on. They said that they didn't know that Dad's office building was the World Trade Center. Ian had always referred to David's office as being in the Twin Towers. Matthew didn't even realize that his father worked in the Twin Towers. The connection between the Twin Towers and the World Trade Center didn't occur in their young minds. Emma's and my fear was what initially had terrified them so much. They knew that something terrible had happened to their father but they couldn't quite piece it together. It wasn't until later in our discussion that they realized the full implication of what I was telling them.
With that first conversation I had already made a mistake. I had made assumptions for my children that I shouldn't have. It was important for me to realize that I would be dealing with a very different understanding and perspective from my own. I needed to communicate better with my children. I needed to make sure that they understood what I was saying and doing.
Thus, after the initial shock of the collapse of the buildings and David's presumed death, my first fear was for my children. How would I help them through this? What could I possibly do to make this less difficult for them? How could they digest all the uncertainty and intangibility of the situation and apply it to losing their father?
I felt immediately that David had not survived the disaster. That evening, I was aware of a very strong presence around me that I knew to be David comforting me. He was gone. Now I needed to help the children, and to give them the strength that David was giving me. So, in the wake of uncertainty and death, I attempted to help console my children with books. I consumed book after book, looking for the answer, hoping to find the perfect guidance and explanation for this bizarre and frightening tragedy. I had friends go on searches for books that I could share with my children about grief and loss. Each time we failed. Somehow, nothing seemed to be right. I resented reading books from people who had never experienced grief. How could they possibly know how I felt? Experience is the only true frame of reference with grief. It made me angry when they professed to know the answers when they didn't even have the questions. I needed personalization. I needed to identify with someone else's grief.
My children felt this way, too. Nothing we read seemed to fit how we felt. It wasn't the tragedy we needed to identify with, because there was no tragedy comparable to ours. It was someone else's own thoughts and feelings that we needed, someone else's numbness and fear, but also someone else's struggle for normalcy and strength. We needed to know that we were not alone, and that others were able to understand and feel our pain. But we also needed guidance. We needed to gain strength.
This book is about parenting and guiding children through the grieving process. It is designed to help a child come to terms with grief and to gain strength through grief. It is directed toward any caregiver, and by caregiver I mean a mother or father or any adult who has the primary responsibility for a child. In most instances this probably will be a parent or guardian, but if you are reading this and happen to be a teacher, a mental health professional, a babysitter, or any relative or adult friend of a grieving child or family, then I hope you find this book to be of help.
The death of my husband, David, was a very public tragedy. The kindness and support my children and I received from family, friends, our community, and complete strangers was inspirational and overwhelming. It gave us a great deal of additional strength. On the flip side, we sometimes found it hard to catch a moment of privacy and anonymity. Everywhere I went, people saw my face or heard my name and immediately knew my private agony. Comments and discussions about the World Trade Center were on every media station and in every supermarket aisle. It was hard to protect the children from statements that might upset them. When my daughter didn't eat her school lunch, I would receive phone calls and questions asking me whether Emma was developing an eating disorder. I recognize that people were only trying to help or to come to terms with the tragedy themselves, but sometimes I just wanted to disappear. I also wanted to cover my children with a protective bubble.
Regardless of your situation, and regardless of the support you may or may not receive, helping a grieving child is never easy. All caregivers must endure different hardships, and all paths will be different. My path was easier than most, because of the extraordinary support my children and I received, and for that I am truly grateful. But we are all united in our ultimate goal of helping a grieving child to heal. In my experience, I learned that the journey toward healing encompasses what I call the four essentials--routine, love, honesty, and security--and each of these things manifests itself in very practical ways. Armed with this knowledge, any adult in any situation can successfully battle a child's demons of grief. In this book, using clear examples, I'd like to share with you some of my positive discoveries and negative pitfalls of what my children and I had to endure during our ongoing journey. My combined philosophy of routine, love, and honesty gave my children the security needed to rise above their sadness. No one essential was independent of the other. All four essentials were needed at all times to guide my children.
Excerpted from What Children Need When They Grieve by Julia Wilcox Rathkey. Copyright © 2004 by Julia Wilcox Rathkey. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.