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Animals: Helpers and Heroes in Scary Times

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Curtis, Photo Anne Zeiser

When this Marathon Monday dawned a perfect day for über running, it put me in a great mood even though I'm not much of a runner. Marathon Day signals the "real" start of spring for New Englanders. It reminds Americans of our steely roots because it always falls on Patriots Day. It launches spring school vacation week in Massachusetts. And, it stirs my former professional connections to the event, having covered it for Boston's CBS News affiliate (now NBC) and managed marketing client, the Boston Athletic Association's 100th Anniversary activities.

So the holiday opened for me, my eight year old son, husband and dog with the lazy feel of a Sunday morning. I lingered over coffee knowing there was no morning scramble to shower and catch the school bus. We'd decided to make it a TV-free day. We played the board game Life, I did a West Coast conference call and my husband puttered outside. In the early afternoon, with my son playing at my feet, I checked Facebook and learned about the bombings. Abandoning the family vow, I flipped on the TV, aghast at the barbarism at the "Hub's" beloved Boston Marathon.

In just a few minutes, my "Mom" instincts overtook my journalist and news junkie instincts and I turned off the TV, knowing the cumulative effects of media. But in that short time, the fear and gruesome implications were already in sharp reveal. So, I decided to talk to my son about what had happened at the Marathon. In today's wired world, there's no shielding children completely from such harsh realities. Who could have guessed that I'd need to find words to comfort my son like after the Newtown, CT massacre -- twice in just six months?

As a former PBS-er, I went to my most trusted parenting source, PBS KIDS. It offered Mr. Rogers' sage advice, in times of tragedy, "look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping." I conveyed those thoughts to my son, while noting Rogers' additional advice to the media to be sure to cover the "helpers." I didn't know what my son felt or heard, but was glad to have Fred Rogers' "helpful" words.

Then, we all went outside to get distance from the horror unfolding on the television. We planted bulbs, played catch with our dog, Curtis and took the bikes for a spin. At bedtime, when I did a recheck with my son about the days' events, he delivered a non-verbal signal of understanding and comfort, hugging Curtis, who was curled up at the end of the bed.

This vacation week I decided to send my son to our town's vacation community program in hopes that playtime with other kids would help him both separate from and process the atrocity he had "witnessed." Yesterday was a bit better for everyone -- a day of healing with the President in Boston comforting victims, the city and the nation; suspects identified; and social media afire with sentiments of "Boston Strong." At the town's vacation program, there were special visitors for the children, "Barn Babies," coincidentally scheduled for that day. My son played with piglets, kids (goats), chicks, puppies and kittens. After that, he was the most relaxed I'd seen him since the atrocity happened. The animal babies had done their magic.

This morning, unaware of the firefight and carjacking, we expected more healing and calm. The call that went to voice mail at the crack of dawn from Emerson College (where I'm an adjunct professor) cancelling classes because the city was in lockdown, should have been a tip off. During breakfast, I turned on the TV to check on the weather and learned about the unimaginable developments with the two Marathon bomber suspects.

My son was visually shaken so I turned off the TV immediately. Only with a lot of coaxing did I learn of my son's particular worry. (He's not too chatty about his anxieties or concerns.) He explained that he was afraid that the "bad man" was going to come to our house. I quickly responded, "Oh no, the last place a bad guy on the run could hideout is a house with a cute white pup that barks when someone comes to the house." A huge smile of relief came across my son's face. Curtis closed the love loop by licking my son's hand. This sometimes-annoying canine practice of announcing visitors with loud barks had become my saving grace. In that moment of my son's smile, Curtis had become my helper and my hero.

As a concerned parent, I've learned two things so far from the Boston Marathon tragedy. First, make sure you work hard to understand you kids' specific fears so you can address them directly to make them feel safer. And second, look everywhere for the "helpers" because they may come in many forms. From the Marathon runners donating blood right after the race and BAA personnel, volunteers and bystanders rushing toward the smoke to first responders' swift and steady actions and medical staff working tirelessly through several nights.

And in our family's case, the "helper" took the shape of a medium-sized lab mix, Curtis, who celebrates his fourth anniversary of adoption from the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, MA -- tomorrow.

The still unanswered question for me is who was more comforted by our dog Curtis during this uncertain time, my son or me?

Has an animal helped or comforted you in a time of need? Share with the Huffington Post's readers the bravery and healing power of your amazing creatures.