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Project Liberty & September 11th: Lessons That We Have Learned

By: Tzivy Ross  

It has been 18 months since Ohel began its work with the Project Liberty program, and almost two years since the tragedy of September 11th. During that time, we met with thousands of adults, children and families from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx; and Westchester, Rockland and Nassau Counties. 

What are some of the observations we have made during this historic and challenging time? What are some of the lessons that we as a community can learn from this terrible misfortune and its aftermath? 

1: Don’t Assume 
It is important not to make assumptions about others and the manner in which you believe that they are coping. After a tragedy, often family members and friends do not know the best way to be helpful and will make assumptions rather than simply asking and "checking in" about what is needed, ie; "this is such a difficult time. I want very much to be there for you but am not sure about what is the best thing to do. Would it be comfortable for you if I ……?" Acknowledging the awkwardness and uncertainty can ease the tension, ensure that the action that you are taking is most appropriate and can deepen your connection to the mourner. 

The importance of "checking in" especially applies to children. After 9/11, many parents reported that they believed that their children were doing fine until something dramatic occurred which showed them otherwise. One parent told us that they had no idea that their child was even worrying about anything until he asked for "a new daddy" for his upcoming birthday. When they exclaimed in surprise, "but you already have a daddy," he replied "in case my daddy dies, I want to have another one." Many parents are concerned about raising difficult issues with their children for fear of "putting ideas in their head." However, research has shown that it is not harmful and can only be beneficial to check in with your children periodically, ie, "something scary happened today, is that something you would like to talk about?" This will not raise a child’s anxiety if none exists, and can only serve to alleviate it if it does exist. Children will let you know if this is something they are worried about, or if they do not need to discuss it further. 

2: School-age Children Seem To Be Especially Vulnerable During Uncertain Times 
By far the most referrals for counseling that we received were for school-age children, particularly children between the ages of 7-12. One explanation can be that as children grow during this stage of development, their cognitive abilities increase, enhancing their ability to learn and take in information about the world around them. However, their emotional capacity to process that information, which in today’s times can often be complex, painful and emotionally laden, is still limited. In fact, it is quite difficult even for psychologically sophisticated adults with strong coping skills to make sense of a lot of this information; certainly this is even more difficult for children. We have seen many children of this developmental stage who are unable to articulate their concerns and present with a variety of symptoms ranging from anxiety, sleep disturbances, school phobia and psychosomatic complaints. 

The implications for parents are to be proactive concerning their children. Limit media coverage of traumatic events, give children opportunities to ask questions, and respond to any questions that they may have by giving them unambiguous, direct, age-appropriate information. Allow children to express feelings of worry, fear and sadness and don’t invalidate those feelings by giving false reassurance or saying "don’t worry." Instead give children opportunities to identify and utilize their coping skills by asking "how can we help you feel safe, despite the bad/scary things that are happening?" and help children come up with their own solutions to feel better. One parent of an anxious and school-phobic child helped her daughter come up with the ingenious idea of digitally placing her and her mother’s picture on her pencil case so she can "bring" her mother with her to school every day and feel more secure about leaving her. 

3: Well-Intentioned People Will Not Always Say Or Do The Best Things 
"Don’t worry, you’re a good catch, you’ll remarry," "You have to be strong, you’re the big brother now," "Your mother was a karbon [sacrifice] for all of us," & "Shouldn’t you be over this by now?" are just a few of the many inappropriate comments that have been said by well-meaning individuals to mourners in their time of grief and distress. When a tragedy strikes there is a great sense of horror and powerlessness that overcomes a community and many individuals do not always know the best thing to say or do to make a difference. Out of this anxiety, helplessness and a sincere desire to be comforting, many people will try to reach out in a way that can be less than helpful. 

There is a reason that the mishneh states "do not comfort the mourner while the deceased lies before him." In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, the pain is often too raw for loved ones to be genuinely comforted, and they must be allowed to experience and feel their sadness in their own way. There is no way to spare them from that. However, their burden can be shared by staying with them in their pain, listening to them speak about the deceased or simply being there with them for as long as is needed. I have heard renowned trauma specialist and psychologist Dr. David Pelcovitz state many times that "good listeners are always more effective than good talkers." When paying a shiva visit, in times of crisis, or simply when helping out a friend in need, we would all be wise to remember that. 

Staying Strong Together 
Ultimately, we do not have the answer to the question of why terrible disasters happen. There are no lessons learned that can explain away the terrible pain and suffering that has been caused by September 11th , the horrific terror in Israel and the many other tragedies that have befallen our community. It is only through reaching out and supporting each other that we can ask our questions together and give one another the strength to endure them. 

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