You know it’s an unusual day when your middle schoolers come home early and build a cardboard bomb shelter on your front lawn. That’s what happened at my house when Mark and Benji arrived home on that awful September day, 10 years ago. Like many children, they saw the disaster at school.
Like every other American, my husband and I watched in horror as we experienced the full hatred of terrorists for our country. On that morning, we’d sent our kids off to school in one world and welcomed them home to an entirely different one.
As much as we attempt to protect our children from disasters like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, tornados, hurricanes, flooding, raging fires or earthquakes, we discover that we are pretty powerless.
I have a personal theory that the helicopter parenting phenomenon was born on 9/11. We hover over our children attempting to make their lives smooth because we failed so miserably to protect them from disasters such as the Twin Towers disintegrating into dust.
Since my Mark and Benji have been born, they’ve seen:
- January 28, 1986 - the Challenger Shuttle explode, with vivacious Christy McAuliffe on board.
- April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City attacked, leaving 168 dead.
- September 11, 2001 - Terrorists hijack airliners crashing them into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania, killing over 3,000.
- August 23, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina takes 1,836 lives and leaves 135 missing.
- April-May 2011 – A relentless succession of tornadoes ravage the Southeast.
- 2008 – 2011 - The Great Recession, which opens the possibility of another Great Depression.
And these are only a few events that occurred in the nation during their lives. This is a scary world we’re living in. Childhood is always a fearful time. Oftentimes children cannot even verbalize what’s making them afraid, whether it’s a monster in the closet, under the bed or a boogey man who might enter at any moment. I’ve held many a boy in the middle of the night shaking from imagined night terrors. But today’s terrors can originate from real events.
Our boys have also experienced loss firsthand. My four stepsons lost their mommy after a heroic fight against breast cancer. The twins were three, Benji was eight and Andrew, 12. No one can prepare children for such grief to enter their lives. Most children don’t even understand the word cancer and its ramifications, but ours saw the outcome on an intimate basis. And, truthfully, they’ve struggled mightily to understand things and grasp concepts that even mature people find difficult.
The, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” questions are hard for philosophers and theologians to explain. In the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl attempted to answer the hard questions of life. As a Holocaust survivor, he’d experienced firsthand one of the greatest tragedies of all time. He wrote:
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life -- daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."
As parents we’ve tried to answer those tough questions of life, even when we don’t have the answers. It’s a human reaction to search for the meaning behind every life circumstance. We’ve had to tell our children that sometimes there are no easy answers. There are things, both good and bad, that they’ll experience as they grow and mature. We’ve taught them that life makes more sense if you approach it from a faith-based orientation. We’ve taught them that circumstances don’t define a life; it’s the attitude of the receiver that defines the life. We’ve taught them that life is tissue-paper thin and we often remind them to value family and friends because we know that there are no guarantees and that life can change radically from one moment to the next. We tell them regularly that we love them, just so they know, know, know - deep down in their souls -- that we treasure having each of them in our lives.
So as we taught our children to tie their shoes, to clean up their rooms, to play nice with their brothers and friends in the neighborhood, we’ve also had to teach them the meaning of life. Frankl said it so well in his book when he concludes, “The meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death.”
Yet, we miss the mom who died too young and others we’ve lost along the way of life. To quote President Ronald Reagan -- who borrowed from John Gillespie Magee, the American poet and aviator of the Second World War -- as he spoke to the nation on the night of the shuttle disaster, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”