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Social Work/FDNY Program Assists Families of September 11 Firefighter Victims

By James Devitt

The FDNY/Columbia University Family Assessment and Guidance Program, part of the University's School of Social Work, was developed this past year as a collaborative program with the New York City Fire Department to provide assistance to children of firefighters who perished during the September 11th terrorist attacks. It was selected by the Counseling Service Unit of the FDNY to provide assessment, guidance and long-term follow-up. To date, 29 families and their 75 children are participating.

Lead by Social Work Professor Grace Christ, an expert on bereavement, working with a team of mental health professionals, the program offers multiple evaluations of participating children and parents over a two-year period with five years of continuing follow-up. In the course of providing guidance and education to these families, Christ and her team are seeking to better understand their bereavement process in order to develop more effective remedies for sudden loss in such traumatic situations. They are also exploring differences between normal, complicated and traumatic bereavement in children, an understudied area.

Parents report that the assessment of their children and feedback is reassuring when things are going well and helpful when problems arise. Families have generally chosen to meet with the team in their own home where children are more comfortable and all family members can participate.

"I'm pleased with the program, because I think it gives you a well-rounded assessment of how exactly the children are doing, between the questionnaires that they fill out themselves, the questionnaires that I fill out about them and their teachers," said one of the mothers involved in the program. "You can all see if you're pretty much on the same page with where the children are having problems and if there's something that you've overlooked."

Christ, director of the Social Work Leadership Development Awards of the Project on Death in America and author of "Healing Children's Grief: Surviving a Parent's Death from Cancer" (Oxford, 2000), said the prominence of the September 11th attacks has contributed to the difficulties confronting these families.

"These families face emotional challenges on a daily basis, not only because they lost a loved one unexpectedly, but because they must deal with continuing reminders of the tragedy -- in the newspapers, on television and in daily conversations," she said. "The World Trade Center disaster led to a war, ongoing terrorist threats and continued public discussion and analysis of the event, including an August New York Times article on the taped final moments of the firefighters rescue efforts. This media attention causes unusual and ongoing dramatic reminders of this tragic loss. Another such reminder is the first anniversary of the tragedy on September 11th this year."

In "Healing Children's Grief," Christ describes the responses of more than 200 bereaved parents and children who participated in a parent guidance intervention during the terminal illness and following the death of a parent from cancer. She found that the better the surviving parents understood how their children were adapting to the tragedy, the more effective they could be in helping the entire family cope with the loss.

"Children's ways of expressing their grief can be quite different from that of adults," Christ said. "They also vary depending on the child's developmental capacities. These differences often puzzle and even alarm adults, and are a common source of confusion and misunderstanding."

She also found that 83 percent of the children had returned to their previous levels of functioning -- in their schoolwork, within their family, psychologically and emotionally -- a little more than a year after their parent died. However, Christ points out that a parental death from cancer provides opportunities for preparation that were not available to families who lost a loved one on September 11th, creating an expectation for a different course of recovery. Although the mourning process is arduous and painful, it quickly became apparent to Christ that "heroes marry heroes."

"The extraordinary strength and courage of these women is an inspiration," she said. "One feels privileged to have the opportunity to be involved in their journey."

Interested families can call the FDNY/Columbia University Family Assessment and Guidance Program at (212) 854-0698 for further information.

Published: Sep 11, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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