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Talking to Kids about Life’s Tragedies and Realities

Thursday, September 13, 2012

By Alissa Butterfass

As I write this, it is 9 p.m. on September 11th. Eleven years ago, I was on my way to work at the World Financial Center. I exited the subway train at the World Trade Center station only to be rushed by a police officer to the street-side exit, away from the exit that led to the two towers. My initial thought was that there must be a mugger with a gun in the station. If only…

I wasn’t going to bring up September 11th to my kids quite yet, but at dinner my 6-year-old son asked if I knew that today was a holiday. I asked what holiday and he told me it was the day we remember the fighting in the two towers. He told me the mother of a girl in his class was in the south tower that day but she wasn’t hurt. He asked me how many people died. He asked where I was and I told him I was there. I told him that I found some friends and together we walked up to one of their apartments. I told him I called Grandpa Bob—not Oma (my mother)—because I knew he’d be in his office to receive my call that I was OK. I told him I walked home from my friend’s place, and even though it was a sad day, one thing I was happy about was that by chance that day I had chosen to wear my more comfortable, less dressy shoes and it made walking the many blocks to my home easier.

As we sat tonight at dinner, I spoke cautiously and by instinct. I didn’t want to potentially scare him with any details he hadn’t already known; he didn’t mention airplanes, so I didn’t either. I wanted to be truthful but not frightening.

That is the same approach I take with discussing my heart condition with my kids. The topic doesn’t arise frequently. Usually it comes up when we talk about my 3-year-old’s birth by surrogacy, or if the kids happen to see my scars. Or two weeks ago when I was with them at Sesame Place and couldn’t keep up with them as they climbed fast and furious through the net maze.

I don’t want to hide my heart condition from my kids. It impacts their lives, as it does mine. But I also don’t want them growing up worried about Mommy. So I try to be honest. Keep it simple. Let their questions guide the conversation. Rely on my maternal instincts as to what information they can understand and they can handle.

Eleven years ago, these two kids were barely a glimmer in my eye. Back then, I was so early in my relationship with a man who happened to be an ER doctor in a downtown hospital that I didn’t even call him at work to let him know I was OK. Instead, I left a message on his home answering machine, and all day as he treated the injured, he was worrying about his girlfriend who worked across the street from the Twin Towers. This man is now my husband, the father of my two boys. Together we are doing our best to protect our sons from life’s tragedies but also to enable them to face life’s realities with honesty, understanding, confidence and love.


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