I have had nine years to practice. Nine Sept. 11s to grieve in my own way, to seek understanding from the framework of my own values, and to kindle my own hope with what inspires me. But this year is different. This is the year that, like so many other parents, I will face my child and try to explain.
Everywhere I look I see suggestions of ways to commemorate the day with children. There are books, exhibits, a quilt, many ceremonies -- so many ways to remember, and very little advice about what the experience is like for kids or what helps them most.
Ten years ago I volunteered as a Psychiatrist at the Family Assistance Center, the heart-heavy convention hall on a NYC pier where families of the missing gathered to wait, to find services, and ultimately to grieve. Those children were much closer to the heart of the tragedy than our children are. But their needs were not so different from our children's needs.
They needed facts, but not all the facts. The needed reassurance that they were safe, even though we adults were not sure any of us were. They needed to express their emotions -- or not. They needed adults to help them construct a world view in which evil did not reign -- a world in which, in addition to occasional isolated evil acts, kindness and courage abound. They needed grown ups to model for them how to comfort themselves and relocate hope and happiness.
Despite a desire to raise our children on fairy tales of 'good conquers evil,' there is that nagging sense that all parents have, that at some point we need to tell our children 'how the world really is.' No one lives to adulthood without learning that there are random acts of violence, that bad things happen to good people, and that your parents can't always protect you. But for most of us, this realization was a gradual one, grasped in bits and pieces, hopefully accompanied by the perspective and coping skills that make life bearable despite its inherent risks and dangers. The truth is, living happily and well requires quite a bit of denial. We cannot go through life afraid of every disease and falling object. We can not go through life afraid of each other. Our fear would paralyze us.
So on this Sept. 11, I offer that instead of just teaching kids the history of the day, we take advantage of the moment to model for our kids and to explicitly explain how healthy adults cope with a horrible thing.
There is an abundance of 9/11-related kid's activities that focus on heroes and heroics, on empowerment, on making the world a better and more peaceful place. As adults we understand that these Sept. 11 offerings are an antidote to feelings of fear, sadness and helplessness. But as parents, an important teaching opportunity is lost if we do not explain to our kids the significance of steering their emotions to a positive place. We teach our children how to have strong healthy bodies that will withstand the rigors of life, here is an opportunity to teach your child resilience skills.
From where I sit it is important not just to find positive activities for your child, but to explain to them the process by which these activities help us.
If you choose to attend a Sept. 11 remembrance service with your child, explain to her the role of anniversaries and memorials in our culture and how they help people to grieve on a particular day and in a particular place so that sad feelings can be safely felt and then put away.
If you attend an exhibit that tributes the heroism shown on that day, use it to teach your children that although there are bad people in the world, they are radically outnumbered by good people. Explain to them that when bad things happen, good people get together and try to make the world a better place.
Sept. 11 is a National Day of Service and Remembrance and there are ample neighborhood opportunities to show your child how a person turns grief into action. Make sure your kids know that heroes are not iconic people to be put on a pedestal; they are ordinary people like themselves who were determined to create something positive in the midst of a horrible day.
If you choose to read to your child Maira Kalman's book, Fireboat, about the retired fireboat that jumped to service on Sept. 11 when hydrants didn't work, use it as a launching pad to observe how creative problem solving can help people feel less helpless in the face of the unknown.
If your children are watching TV or in a public place they will undoubtedly notice many strangers who are sad and tearful. Help them to appreciate that people have come from around the world to share a sense of togetherness because they feel the same way about what happened. People have come to be together today because they are all angry and sad and know how wrong it was. These are all people who share common values, values that your child holds as well.
Above all, model for your children how a healthy person limits their exposure, prevents their emotions from overwhelming them and plans what they can do to feel better when it's time to. Set an age appropriate duration for your kids participation in events that may make you or them sad and let them know that afterwards you have planned a feel-good service activity or creative outlet designed to inspire.
Across the country there are opportunities to make a lantern of remembrance and set it adrift on a body of water, to make a circle of hope and add it to a montage of other people's hopes, or to join hands encircling your city. All of these events honor our personal experiences, comfort us with a sense of community, and model for us how we release and conclude a period of mourning.
Having an explicit discussion with your child about how we regulate our moods prevents them from being victims of their emotions. As parents we are already adept at knowing when our child needs distraction or a treat or a cuddle. The anniversary of Sept. 11 offers an opportunity to let your child in on your self-soothing armamentarium.
Your children will learn the history from school. What they will not learn from school is how to grieve without being overwhelmed by it. How to commune with others for support. How to take hold of tragedy and make the world a better place. How to emerge from the day with hope.
Follow Alicia Salzer, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aliciasalzer