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Grace Christ,
Associate Professor of Social Work

Where were you when the World Trade Center was attacked five years ago, and can you tell us your thoughts when you first heard the news?
I was visiting relatives in Long Island at the time.  As I watched the buildings crumble on television on 9/11/01 I immediately thought of what the WTC disaster would mean for the wives and children of the firefighters  I had recently completed a study at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) of children who had to cope with the death of a parent from cancer. At MSK the children had the all-important preparation, small doses of information they could integrate over weeks or months. Being prepared is a big help in getting through the profoundly painful process of losing a parent. I knew that the firefighters’ children would experience a different kind of pain shaped by shock, confusion, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. We had much to learn, however, about the impact of multiple deaths within one work community after a totally unanticipated and world-changing event. I knew there would be no “quick fix” to such a profound loss on the part of so many—and in fact their recovery has turned out to be even longer and more complex than I'd anticipated.

I understand that you were in charge of the FDNY/CU Family Assessment and Guidance Program, a large-scale counseling service for families of firefighter victims, which recently published a report on the success of (and lessons learned from) these counseling efforts.
In the crisis environment of the first weeks and months, the long-haul approach was a hard sell, to say the least! As part of my search I told a colleague at Columbia of my interest. That same day she called Dianne Kane, assistant director of the FDNY Counseling Services Unit, who was looking for a program to address the long-term needs of firefighters’ bereaved families. Malachy Corrigan, the director of CSU, and Dianne were the only people I met who embraced the concept of making a long-term commitment to bereaved families, who were open to the possibility of home visits, and who could live with the idea that there was much we did not know but would learn together over time.

Eventually, we assembled a program team of  skilled and committed faculty and doctoral students from Columbia University School of Social Work, which made the work possible as well as rewarding. However, nothing prepared us to understand the special role a firefighter father plays in the lives of his children and the profound impact of his loss on them. Indeed, we came to know and admire these fathers through the eyes of their children, who often delighted in recounting the details of dad as “Mr. Mom.”

What kinds of progress did the families make over the past five years—can you provide some specific examples?
Our cohort consisted of 55 families and 120 children. The qualities of compassion, empathy, thoughtfulness, maturity and inventiveness the children developed as they met this enormous challenge were extraordinary. We were awed by how the mothers endured the pain of multiple memorials to ensure that their husbands’ heroism and sacrifice received the recognition it deserved.

This past summer, one mother of four children who lost their firefighter father on 9/11 challenged herself to drive her family to Hershey Park for a vacation. It would be the first time they had been there since a trip they took with Dad before he died. Previewing the experience for his 5-year-old brother, her 10-year-old son had this to say, “You’re going to love this place, everything about it is terrific and fun. There is just one thing that keeps it from being perfect: Dad won’t be there, that would make it perfect.”

They made the trip and all had a great time—illustrating a fact that is true for most families—five years after 9/11 there still seems to be no lack of firsts for wives and children who still face having to take one big step or another without the husband and father who perished that day. Like the 16-year-old girl who took up dancing for the first time since Dad used to drive her to her lessons before 9/11, the 15-year-old boy who plunged back into baseball after avoiding it since his Dad’s death, and the 10-year-old boy above, many kids have successfully integrated the emotional challenges posed by their wrenching loss.

Showing great resilience over the course of these past five years, mothers and children have also bravely moved through more natural developmental milestones, celebrating graduations, applying to and being accepted by colleges, and going after and getting that first job. Families have also embraced many new things: moms’ forming new relationships that the kids have integrated into their lives, moving into new homes, adjusting to new neighborhoods or making new friends.

Along with all the positive growth, there are still always reminders of the father and husband who isn’t there to share in the fun and help mark the defining events in the kids’ lives: cheering at ballgames, celebrating the first job, helping to pack and drive a son or daughter to college. Transitions the family has made without Dad—leaving behind an old house that he renovated, even if the new house suits the family’s current situation and needs—can raise mixed feelings.  Through it all everyone knows how proud he would be of their achievements and how much he would want the best for them.

In fact, the relationship with Dad continues to be a strong and important part of their lives. That bond can be a comfort for those who have experienced increased turmoil, especially in anticipation of leaving home for college or before other transitions. Children often need help to connect the sudden waves of emotions that can crop up with the loss of Dad as they re-think how they have been affected—and who they are becoming—and in, the process, better understand sudden and at-times intense emotions. With greater understanding has come for some greater control: one 15-year-old girl did a presentation for her class about her experience of 9/11 so that they would better understand her reactions to the summer movies dealing with 9/11 and the upcoming media coverage of the fifth anniversary.  Other children and teens have found solace in remaining more private.

Over this past year, many mothers and children report that these emotional waves are somewhat less frequent, don’t last so long, and are easier to rebound from. Anniversaries, birthdays, family illnesses and deaths, transitions, media critique, and terrorist threats are less often the triggers. Instead, as both mothers and children report, reminders that now trigger intense emotions can be more subtle ordinary events, often unexpected, and as a consequence more powerful.

A 9-year-old boy said he becomes sad now when he sees cars lined up in the street in front of neighborhood houses.  He remembered several days after 9/11 coming home from school and seeing many cars parked in front of his house.  He was excited because his father was a “party man,” and he thought his father had come home and they were having a party. It turned out they were there to tell his mother they had found his father’s body. Seeing the cars now reminds him of that time.

This year both moms and children have worked hard to redefine themselves and the family with Dad gone from their daily lives. Encompassing so much change takes more time and strength than most people can appreciate. The world is often impatient and thinks, “it’s five years, you should be over it.”  What mothers and children have taught us during this fifth year is that these waves of emotion related to the loss are important and psychologically integrative.

The death of the firefighter has defined their lives, but in no way has it destroyed their lives. They have gone on not only to survive but also to thrive.

In your view, has 9/11 proved to be a watershed event—five years on, are the families of victims still feeling its reverberations, and what further steps do you think social workers and policy makers should be taking to assist with their recovery?
Existing research identifies increased mental health risks for younger widows/widowers. Originally we thought five years would be an ideal time frame for providing guidance to these families and learning about their recovery processes. However, the emergence of new challenges and stresses as well as successes each year has highlighted the value of an even longer period for evaluation. In addition there are no other  long term, detailed reports of victims of such catastrophes that can inform disaster response approaches for future survivors.

Back to Five Years Since 9/11


AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.

Published: Aug 25, 2006
Last modified: Sep 29, 2006