3,000 children bear a horrific public grief
The New York Times
NEW YORK – The bone brought sad finality to everyone but Brendan
It was proof that his father died Sept. 11, 2001. But for Brendan,
who is 5, the news that a piece of Thomas Fitzpatrick’s humerus had
been recovered was vexing, at best. “Can we get all the pieces and
put them together?” he recently asked his mother at their home in
Tuckahoe, N.Y. “So he could be alive?”
In Harlem, a different puzzle unfolded for Samuel Fields. He was
10 when the towers collapsed, and knew his father was gone. But
he could not cry. He jumped off the steep rocks in Central Park,
punched a classmate and, the following summer, wound up in jail for
pelting cars with stones. It was only then, after his mother yelled,
“Would your father want this?” that the first tears fell.
Brendan Fitzpatrick and Samuel Fields belong to the vast tribe of
young children who lost parents on Sept. 11 – an estimated 3,000 boys
and girls who are all working through their own painful puzzles of
bewilderment and sorrow. From the start, there were grim forecasts for
this group, and rumors: There would be scores of orphans, permanent
trauma, a generation forever marred. Charitable foundations were set
up, scholarships created.
But for all the dark assumptions and the outpouring of sympathy
and money, the children of the dead receded from public view. Their
families protected them. Journalists shied away from them. Social
workers struggled to find them. Psychotherapists confronted a novel
clinical challenge: how to treat children who have suffered a loss
so brutally intimate yet spectacularly public.
Some of the nation’s best trauma experts set out to study the
group, but struggled merely to diagnose what they encountered. Even
identifying the children, determining how many there were and where
they lived, took years.
Only now is a portrait of the children emerging. They cut across class
and ethnic and racial lines but share similarities: Most lost a father,
and a majority of the children were of grade-school age or younger.
If the father who died coached soccer, chances are his son stopped
playing. School is avoided on the anniversary. A low-flying plane
can send hearts racing. Television is a minefield. Work is identified
with death. Many of the surviving parents have quit their careers.
With four major studies under way, it is too soon to know the full
effect of Sept. 11 on its legacy of bereaved children. Some of the
children appear resilient, while others are visibly struggling.
But patterns have surfaced, ranging from symptoms of anxiety and
depression to violent outbursts and social withdrawal. Those in
treatment are faring better, though many have avoided it. Teenagers,
in the age-old effort to fit in, are most prone to keeping quiet
about the horrific way their parents died.
All of the children of Sept. 11 are bound by at least one thing:
the burden of mourning a private loss that is, at least for this
country, historic in stature. Many of the children watched the
attacks on television. Year after year, they are confronted with a
ceaseless ambush of reminders – at the movies, in classroom banter,
on a poster at the supermarket. To the children, these are not the
well-worn images of towers falling and planes crashing, but the deeply
intimate, devastating scenes of a parent’s death.
“It was seeing my dad die over and over and over again,” said Sarah
Van Auken, 15, whose father, Kenneth Van Auken, worked at Cantor
Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center.
How these children will compare with those who have lost parents in
other traumatic events – from car crashes and natural disasters to
genocidal wars – remains an open question.
Even the most basic facts about the Sept. 11 children remained
elusive: an estimated 1,596 people – more than half of the victims –
were parents, and they left behind at least 2,990 children who were
under 18 at the time of the attacks, according to preliminary data
compiled by Dr. Claude Chemtob, a clinical professor of psychiatry
and pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
The data were compiled by a team of researchers who began in April
2003 with the city medical examiner’s list of the deceased. They then
culled through thousands of newspaper articles and recruited the help
of government agencies and organizations assisting the families.
The result is the first-known registry of bereaved children. It
includes children of the parents lost on the four airplanes and at
the Pentagon. More than 100 of them had not yet been born when their
fathers died. The registry is still incomplete, and the tally will
likely exceed 3,000, Chemtob said. (An additional 478 people between
the ages of 19 and 56 at the time of the attacks lost a parent,
according to the data.)
More is known about the trauma of children in war-torn countries and
the young survivors of natural disasters. The Armenian earthquake
in 1988 killed some 25,000 people. Investigators from the Trauma
Psychiatry Program at the University of California at Los Angeles
tracked 218 of the surviving children for more than five years. They
found those who were given early treatment for trauma symptoms showed
significant improvement, whereas those who went without therapy did
Perhaps the greatest surprise has been post-traumatic stress disorder
has affected only 12 percent of the Sept. 11 children, while the
most prevalent problems can be categorized as disruptive disorders,
problems with mood and conduct.
The experience of the Sept. 11 children falls under the mental health
rubric of “traumatic bereavement,” a combination of the two greatest
crises for any child: trauma and grief.
The Sept. 11 children have the added burden of sharing their grief
with millions of strangers.
“The public wants a heroic memory,” said Marylene Cloitre, a research
psychologist and director of the Institute for Trauma and Stress at
New York University’s Child Study Center. “The private memory is much