“How Do I Cope With The Fact That I Can’t Keep My Children Safe?” – My Lesson from 9/11/01

imagesOn this the 18th anniversary of 9/11/01 I wish we could have a national (if not a global) debrief on where we all were and the lessons we learned. But because there is not enough room in my apartment to do this – I’ll just give you my short version.

On 9/11/01 at the point where the two planes flew into the World Trade Center, I was facilitating an orientation for the nurses and staff at Adventist Behavioral Health and teaching them about how to manage stressful situations in fast-paced healthcare environments. When I left the orientation and heard what had happened from the staff huddled around a computer, the rest of the day just felt numb and robotic.

It was a few weeks later that I came to understand the challenges we were facing.

A few weeks after 9/11, a member of the Adventist leadership team asked me to help a member of their church whose 8 y/o daughter didn’t want to go to school. She had seen several professionals already but no luck. I told her I didn’t think there was anything I would be able to do differently but she said, “look I know you like talking with children, can you just see?”

I agreed and met with her the next day.

The next day our little patient and her mom came into my office. Clearly – she didn’t want to talk to me as she buried her head into her mom’s sweater as soon as they sat down. I asked her mom about the different people they had seen, and her mom said, she wouldn’t talk and wouldn’t go to school. “I don’t think she trusts anyone” she said.

As soon as her mom said that, our young patient picked her head up and looked at me. I gently asked her “is that true? Is it hard to trust someone you don’t know?” I watched as she nodded her head up and down.

“That’s okay” I told her “I know trust is something you have to earn, right?” Again – she nodded her head up and down.
I told her it was important for us to know why she didn’t want to go to school. But that I also knew that I had not earned her trust. The only solution I had was to see if she would be willing to tell her mom why she didn’t want to go to school. When I asked her this, she agreed to whisper her reason for not going to school in mom’s ear.

I watched as she put her hand up against her mom’s ear, so I couldn’t hear her and then I saw her whispering something. Mom’s face turned pale and she started crying and gave her daughter a huge hug and said, “it’s okay honey, we’re going to all be okay”.

I asked if I could have a minute or two to meet with her mom and she agreed and one of my colleagues took our young patient across the hall to sit with her where they would still be able to see us. Mom looked at me and said “she told me she was afraid to go to school because if she left, she was afraid the terrorists would come to get her (mom). So together we developed a strategy which we hoped would help integrate her back into her classroom. Also during that time (and from working with the teachers in some of the school districts in the area and hearing their suggestions, one of the things they stressed was having kids being able to attach pictures of their families to their backpacks so that they felt they would have their family with them – at least in spirit.

But one of the most challenging and poignant conversations was with another one of the church organizations I had been consulting with when I asked the members present if there were any questions (related to the developmental issues and ideas for coping skills) I was speaking to them about. One woman raised her hand and when I called on her, she asked

“How do I cope with the fact that I can never know that my child will be safe when I send them to school?”

To this day, this question haunts me. And when I think about all of the chaos and turbulence that has and continues to take place in our country and the anger, fear and divisiveness that is present, I think that this is the issue that’s underneath all of it – the vulnerability and sadness in knowing that we are never able to know for sure that our children and families are safe. This idea haunts me – and I’m not even a parent. But the one thing I remain inspired and sometimes saddened by are the strangers who assist each other to get the help and support they need even (sometimes) at the cost of losing their own lives.

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