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“He keeps asking about planes crashing.”
“She doesn’t want me to leave for work in the morning. She says she is afraid I will be killed when my building falls down”
“My children look up in terror when they hear a plane flying overhead.”
Dozens of similar questions from worried parents are on my desk. All of us are in the process of moving from the initial shock, intense disbelief, and immense sadness to the aftermath. And we have many tasks ahead of us in this aftermath.
Personally I have had all the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder especially sleeplessness, feelings of depression, and difficulty concentrating. I tried to turn off the TV but, like an addict, found myself unable to stay away from the screen. I tried distractions with some success. Music helped, as did a silly movie comedy. One sleepless night I read the second and third Harry Potter books right through. Being with friends was heartwarming but it was impossible to not talk about Ground Zero and its effect on all of our lives.
My grief at the loss of life is overwhelming at times. And I ache with a diffuse sadness maybe because I lived in New York. It was the city of my youth, the city where I became a doctor and an independent young woman. Dammit, I will miss those towers and Windows on the World! I once met Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center, a man who talked with passion about designing a building that would “soar up to Heaven.”
One of my own healing tasks will be to go to New York as soon as it is feasible so I will see for myself that the City has survived the catastrophe.
I suggest parents try to cope with their own feelings so they can help their children. For myself when I feel down I have a three-part regimen that works. 1) Go through the motions. Even if you are not working at your usual speed or level of excellence, DO IT ANYWAY. 2) Get some vigorous physical exercise every day. 3) At the end of each day that you have gone through the motions and exercised, give yourself a little present: buy yourself one beautiful flower, take a long bubble bath–the idea is to be nice to yourself.
Seek solace in your friends, your community, your religion–being with people has a healing effect. Continue your helping actions like giving blood and donating money–helping others always helps ourselves. Rejoice in and appreciate every moment on our beautiful planet–nature can be healing.
As for helping children in these troubled days I suggest the following:
o Get back to your normal ROUTINES as soon as possible. Children need predictable routines and creative surprises. It helps to know what will come next whether it’s doing chores together or getting ready for a bedtime story. And punctuate the routine with a surprise or two like a picnic on the living room floor or a mystery trip.
o Share your own feelings with your children. If you are down, say so. Some parents try to conceal their feelings so they won’t worry the kids. This backfires because your children can sense there is something wrong and often think it’s their fault.
o REASSURE. REASSURE. REASSURE. Keep saying that you will do everything in your power to keep your children safe. Keep pointing out that the airplanes stay up in the sky and that new security measures will make air travel safe. Tell the child who is afraid you will be harmed at work that you will be safe and you will call home several times during the day so the child can hear your voice.
o Spend as much family time together as you possible can. Call the grandparents frequently.
o Give the power of play a chance to work. Children process their fears and grief in different ways. I was told of two little boys, both age three, who built twin towers with blocks. One repeatedly crashed a toy airplane into the towers causing them to fall. The other steered the airplane toward the towers and repeatedly veered away at the last minute so the towers remained standing. Each boy is using play to deal with feelings. Let your children play in their own ways. If they want to talk about their play listen; if they just want to play that’s OK too.
o Give older children some space. They may say things that seem strange to you. Some may seem cynical (“Maybe we deserved it.”) or callous (“I’m tired of all the news, I want to watch my programs”). The wise parent listens and quietly says, “I understand how you feel.” or says something neutral like, “Tell me more about how you feel.”
o Remember that nothing your child may say or play is wrong or cause for alarm. It is your child’s unique way of dealing with the fear and anger.
o Be prepared for a long aftermath. Do not expect yourself or your children to bounce back quickly. This was an unprecedented catastrophe to watch or contemplate. It will take a long time for all of us to process our feelings. Don’t be surprised if children stop talking about it but start again, weeks or months from now.
Help is available in your community. Get help for yourself or your children if needed. How do you know whether you are normally depressed or need help? At times like these when we all feel so awful consider FUNCTION as a guide. If your children are functioning at school and at play with friends they are probably OK. If you are functioning as a parent and at work you are probably OK. If not ask your doctor for the name of a mental health professional.
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