The fifth year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks coincides with a unique date for me. I am the exact age today as my mom was when she died in 1979. I was a senior in high school at the time, and the prognosis from my teachers and relatives was not too good.
They felt, thanks to my age and transitory place in life, I was more apt than my siblings to suffer long term negative affects from my mom's early death. I always disagreed with this and felt, regardless of someone's age when his or her parent dies, it creates profound change. Yet, this impact does not have to be totally negative.
I'd love to be able to update my mom, to fill her in on what's transpired in my life since her death. Even though I can't directly communicate with her, there are signs she's aware. There will be more on these later.
But first, this article is intended to help you and folks you know who've lost a loved one young.
The Problem: The death of a young parent.
Hundreds of children, some yet born, lost parents on September 11, 2001. In follow up interviews, many 9/11 survivors stated, due to their young age at the time of their parent's death, they have difficulty remembering their parents. I was older when my mom died, so I remember her voice and presence, and even her smell.
But the expectation of sharing life's joys- celebrations, graduations, marriage, births, and professional celebrations, ends prematurely when a parent dies young. A decent part of my motivation was meeting her expectations and sharing successes.
When she died, I needed to find new targets to provide joy and happiness. This kept me juiced. Creative outlets, athletics, and activities helped because they brought me in contact with people with common goals, and they allowed me to have some fun. I attempted to make up for my family's lost support structure by joining constructive organizations, and by being creative.
The Doubt: Despite the great loss of a parent, life goes on.
It was interesting to see the varied responses 9/11 children survivors shared in a set of interviews I watched yesterday. It was very sad to see a little girl still grieving, while another stated: "life goes on." She felt she had to "live well, to carry on the memory of (her) dad. It's what he would want from (her)."
When my mom died, my high school football team was ranked tops in NJ. I was one of the captains. She was buried the day before our semi final State Championship game against East Orange. I was part of a high profile team and my family's story was in the news.
People reached out and supported us. They were warm and friendly. It was touching, selfless, and really good behavior. It will always be with me, and I'll always appreciate it. I anticipated this kind of sincere support going forward. When I showed up at Brown, I realized the party was over. People can be cold and competitive. If they haven't lost a parent young, they can't relate, or connect. They may even see early loss as a weakness they can manipulate.
Trials: New playing fields and processes.
As a result, I had to create an expanded set of values. My dad remarried within a year of my mom's death. Naturally, my mom and stepmother did not share the same views. Many of my mental models were based on my mom's teachings. Also, Brown's faculty's perspective was, in general, different from what I'd seen and experienced in my previous 18 years.
This is a challenge for some children whose parents die young. Their lives are turned upside down. Their truths - the companionship and comforts they sought and were given to sooth anxiety, to solve problems, and to have fun are no longer present. The memories persist, but, as mentioned, the younger the child, the harder it is for these memories to remain vibrant.
As a result, young kids whose parents die may be more prone to anxiety, depression, and anger. Their security is taken away. It can lead them to expecting, or dreading, similar disruptions throughout life. It can set a negative perspective. These children may not have the tools or skills to comfort themselves, or to see their situation in a positive light.
Transcending the death of a young parent: Grace, compassion, humor, hope, and toughness.
Joining organizations, finding new role models and mentors, and learning about new cultures, places, people, and their truths helped me transcend some of my depths. Then, falling in love, having a family, and living my dreams and those I anticipated my mom having for me kept me going.
Goals and a support structures outside of my original family helped me deal with my mom's early death. Based on the onslaught of support I received when my mom died, I knew good people existed. I sought them out. I met some mentors and established family-like relationships with my neighbors.
A few years ago a professor loaned me a book on childhood resiliency. It states one of the key features shared by resilient children is having someone who takes a sincere interest in the child's well being. This helped me - mentors who entered my life with good influence and intention.
In retrospect, I wish I'd developed earlier relationships with peers and role models who'd experienced similar loss. Traumatic events define us, and allow us to connect with others with similar experiences. They are bonding agents and can be used as platforms to connect and build instead of isolate. By integrating my loss and pain, I was able to accept the signs. As mentioned, I think my mom signals me at critical times. I sense her grace at special celebrations. People who experience the death of a young parent may experience similar events.
My hope is the surviving relatives and friends of the 9/11 victims will experience a deeper awareness of and comfort from life's miracles. I hope they learn to expect a successful life, just as their loving parent expected. In reaching out to them, we can help them overcome, and, in turn, help ourselves gain a greater sense of satisfaction.