"You can teach your child … that despite deep loss, life can and does go on and hope can be restored."

Learning to Live Well in the Midst of Fear and Terror:

A Conversation with Linda Goldman

by Robert Zucker


Linda Goldman was first a teacher and guidance counselor for nearly twenty years and is currently a grief counselor and educator living in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is the author of several books, including Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children (Taylor and Francis, 1994, 2000) and Breaking the Silence (Accelerated Development, 1996, 2002). I asked her how childhood grief has changed since September 11th.


Goldman: I had always felt that the children that had entered this new millennium were faced with life issues that were unspeakable to most of us anyway. They lived with the concepts of death-related tragedies like suicide and homicide and AIDS and non death-related tragedies like divorce and separation and bullying and victimization, violence and abuse, foster care and abandonment. These were all the factors that kids were living with before September 11th.


A Nation of Children Grappling With Violent Images

After September 11th, our kids had to witness directly and vicariously the terrorist assault upon our nation. They saw visually, over and over and over again the impact as terrorists took our planes and crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They also saw their adult world become very panicked and horrified, screaming, running in terror. They witnessed it first hand - if not directly, then vicariously through the media.


A four-year old in El Salvador has a grandmother living here in the United States. While talking to his grandmother on the phone, he said, "I'm so sad and upset. I saw the terrorists crash into the World Trade Center. Now I'll never be able to come visit you." The child thought that there was only one airplane to come to the United States in,  and now it was destroyed. When his grandmother asked him to draw a picture about how he felt, the little boy said, "I can't. It's just too big." Maybe the boy was saying that the airplane was too big, or maybe he was saying that his feelings were too big to put down on the paper. 


Children may process information in different ways than we can even realize. For instance, some may have thought that every time they walked in and saw the TV, that this was happening in real life, again and again. Some children thought that there were hundreds of buildings that got bombed and hundreds of terrorist planes, because they saw it repeated so many times on the TV. We have a nation of children with violent images so graphically imprinted on their psyches, and these images are an overlay to all of the pre-existing conditions that children had before September 11th.


The Enormous Web of Fear and Trauma

The terrorism of September 11th has created an enormous web of trauma. This Halloween, in Washington D.C., it was recommended that kids not trick or treat. Something as small as that becomes so large for the children. It was the loss of so familiar a part of American life. In addition, there were rumors that something terrible was going to happen and it was also the week that there were warnings of another terrorist attack. Children are experiencing the loss of their assumptive world. To whatever extent they have been exposed to the media, most if not all of our children have lost a sense of feeling safe in their world. We need to create ways for our kids to feel safe again. We are a traumatized community and I am concerned that we are forgetting the kids. Who is going to maintain the vigil with the children? That's my question.


Zucker: What worries children now?


Goldman: One kid drew a picture of an airplane going into a big building, and when the teacher asked him to explain the drawing, he said, "This is a picture of the next building the terrorists will attack."


Here are some other voices of young people after the 11th:


"If the terrorists can get the famous twin towers, they can get into a regular building like mine."


" I'm afraid we will all be bombed again and it will be World War III."


" I hate technology."


Encountering a New Paradigm

Kids, like adults, are in shock, and they are very sensitive to the adults around them. My son's school is next store to a post office that was closed because of Anthrax, and this weekend they went through his school to make sure it was safe. We had to talk frankly about this, explain the precautions, and tell him that people were working on this problem, and discuss with him the reality that a few people have died and a few people have gotten sick. We adults must learn to model a mature response for our kids. We need to talk honestly. We need to say there are new risks now and this is what the adults are doing about it. Whether or not we talk to our kids about Anthrax, for example, our kids know about it.


Zucker: The challenge, then, is for adults to model ways of "living well" in the midst of the fear and terror.


Goldman:  Yes. We are all creating and processing something new that we've never talked about before. This is not going to go away. We are going to have to live with this. It is a new world. It is important for parents to create a quiet time with their children to just talk, touch base, and check-in.  Ask them if they've been thinking about what's been happening in the world. Then, if they say no, fine. If they say yes, ask them what they are thinking about. A family can also set-up an emergency plan, making sure the kids have all the telephone numbers they need, and can think ahead of time of all the ways they can feel safer and can stay connected. I think the key is to tell children that they are not victims and they are not helpless, and that here are some things you can do.


Zucker: What else can families and schools do with children?


Goldman: We can help children make a memory book of where they were on September 11th. What were they feeling? What was life like before the attack? What is life like for them now? Children can make a collage of all their family members and put themselves at the center. They can keep their collage in their room so they can see all the people around them.


Children can make a "Safe Box." They can gather a special object, like a favorite stuffed animal, a picture of a favorite place, a picture of someone they love that makes them feel good. They can put all these thing into their "Safe Box," decorate the box and keep it in a special place where they can go to it when they want to.


Zucker: What questions can we ask young people?


Maintaining the Vigil With Our Children

Goldman: I might say, "Sometimes kids have questions about what's happening. Sometimes we can find out the answers and sometimes we can't. What are your questions?" Kids don't always want to talk directly about this trauma, so I might ask them to describe a time in their lives that they know they won't ever forget. I might also ask, "What still bothers you?" What makes you feel jittery? What are your "over and over" thoughts?


Zucker: How are children answering your questions?


Goldman:  Here are answers to some questions:


If you had one wish what would it be?  I would change everything that happened on Tuesday. I wish the adults around me would stop talking about the terrorist attacks because it's sort of scary.


What can kids do?  Get Gatorade and energy bars for the firemen. Everyone could get new work gloves for the firemen. We could get the firemen coats and warm clothes to keep them warm.


What did you gain?  A new sense of friendship between all Americans. Finding you have good communities like your school or your families. Support from foreign countries. Knowing that I lived through this catastrophe.


Zucker: Can children and adults face these frightening times together and eventually find a context for our fears?


Goldman: My take on terrorism is that it is the ultimate form of bullying. What can we do? We can teach children about conflict resolution. We can talk to them about bullying and victimization, intimidation and fear, and prejudice. We really have to bring the point home to our kids that this war isn't against the people of Afghanistan or the Muslims of the world, but it is against people that are doing evil acts. The whole concept of prejudice and tolerance and bullying and victimization is a way that we can take an active role in working with our kids to create inner peace as well as outer peace.