It is so hard, on days like today, to explain the world to your children. Eleven years ago today was also a Tuesday morning, the sky was sunny and the autumn air was warm and crisp. And then all of a sudden it wasn’t. Instantly everything we knew and held sacred was shifted in a way that can never be put back.
At breakfast this morning I struggled to find the right words to explain the significance of today to my children, who were not yet born on the day none of us will ever forget. I was fully aware that my children knew I had just flown back and forth across the country this past weekend, and I fumbled over explaining the events of that Tuesday morning eleven years ago, of hateful men who flew airplanes full of people into buildings. I didn’t do a great job of explaining “hate” and “killing people”, because neither concept is something my children have knowledge about. Those are things taught to children, those are not things children come into our world understanding. I physically could not bring myself to say anything more than “Bad men flew airplanes into buildings.” My four year old told me that is something people shouldn’t do because someone could get hurt, and I went into my kitchen and I cried.
I didn’t cry, I wept and grieved in the painful sobs that come out every year on this day. The memories of waiting for my husband to call from the Navy base to say the Threat Con Delta had been lifted, waiting for his commander to call and say my husband wouldn’t be leaving for war, waiting for my brother-in-law to call from his work one block away from the Trade Center to say he was alive, and waiting days later for my other brother-in-law to call from Ground Zero to say the bucket brigade wasn’t as horrific and atrocious as it sounds. But my sobs are not for me, because all of the phone calls I needed that day eventually came. My sobs were for the families whose phones remained silent.
My six year old asked if the other children at school will be wearing red, white, and blue. I said I didn’t know, but that our family would be. She asked if it was because today is a day about being sad. I answered no, today was a day about being strong. I said it was okay to be sad about what happened, but to focus on the strength demonstrated by all of the heroes that day. Today was a day about helping strangers, about bravery, about grit, about running into the flames and smoke of burning buildings knowing people needed you. Today was about being scared, but doing what needed to be done anyway. Today is about the people who came home to their families, and the people who didn’t.
But this I did manage to do — I told them that today wasn’t about being knocked down. It was about getting back up. I told my children that no matter how dark the day we remember today had become, the colors first to rise from the ashes were red, white, and blue.
Here are some posts I like that cover how to speak to kids about tough topics, like the anniversary of 9/11:
How To Talk To Kids About 9/11, interview with APA psychologist Robin Gurwitch, a program coordinator at the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center