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Helping Families Respond to Tragedy: People of Faith Respond to September 11

By Pat Hoertdoerfer

"What can we do when tragedy fills the airwaves and the consciousness of society? No matter how frightened or bewildered or sad you may be, it is even more frightening to young people to think that nobody cares enough to listen and share the experience with them."
—Pat Hoertdoerfer

The tragic events of September 11 in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania are overwhelming, bewildering, and incomprehensible "the day after" and the weeks after. As adults many of us have experienced wars, natural disasters, shootings in schools, violence in our neighborhoods, and deaths in our families. As parents, caregivers, and teachers we face the daunting tasks of assisting, supporting, and responding to our families, our friends, and our Unitarian Universalist (UU) community of children, youth, and adults.

We provide the following guidelines (gathered and distilled from many sources) to help you help your children, youth, families, colleagues, and UU community respond to loved ones in these difficult times. Your relationship with young persons as a parent and caregiver is the most important ingredient of help that you provide. LISTEN to the words and actions of the children and youth. AFFIRM their feelings and worries. SHARE your mutual feelings and express your love. RESPOND through safe outlets of communication, play, and touch. ACT in collective ways through family prayers, Unitarian Universalist gatherings, and interfaith services and vigils.

  • Maintain a calm atmosphere at home. Children sense and adopt the anxieties and tensions of their parents. Don't assume that children know little about it. They probably know more than you think. The reality of today's world is that news travels far and wide. Adults and children learn about disasters and tragedies shortly after they occur, and live video footage with close-ups and interviews are part of the report. Children and youth are exposed to the events as soon as they watch TV or interact with others. Not talking about it does not protect children. In fact, you may communicate that the subject is taboo and that you are unavailable if you remain silent.
     
  • Be available and "askable." Allow children to talk freely and express their reactions to things viewed on television and heard in school. Let young people know that it is okay to talk about the unpleasant events. Listen to what they think and feel. By listening, you can find out if they have misunderstandings, and you can learn more about the support that they need. You do not need to explain more than they are ready to hear, but be willing to answer their questions.
     
  • Be honest. Share your feelings. Tell young people if you feel afraid, angry, bewildered, or sad. It can help them to know that others also are upset by the events. They might feel that only children are struggling. If you tell them about your feelings with age appropriate language, you also can tell them about how you deal with these feelings. Talk with adolescents about the range and intensity of their emotions. When appropriate invite teenagers to help younger family members talk about their feelings. Be careful not to overwhelm them or expect them to find answers for you.
     
  • Help children and youth use creative outlets like art and music to express their feelings. Young people may not be comfortable or skilled with words, especially in relation to difficult situations. Using art, puppets, music, or books might help children open up about their reactions. Teenagers may want to draw, journal, write letters and then destroy them, or they could want to display them or send them to New York City or Washington, D.C. congregations and families. Be flexible and listen.
     
  • Monitor television viewing, including the amount and intensity of the coverage of the tragedy. Reassure young people and help them feel safe. When tragic events occur, children may be afraid that the same will happen to them. Some young children may not be able to separate the tragic events of world from the world inside themselves. It is important to let them know that they are not at risk, if they are not. Try to be realistic as you reassure them, however. You can try to support them and protect them, but you can not keep all bad things from happening to children. When possible, watch television as a family so you can ask questions and be available to respond to them. You can always tell them that you love them. You can say that, no matter what happens, your love will be with them forever. That is realistic, and often that is all the children need to feel better.
     
  • Support young people's concern for people they do not know. Children and youth often are afraid not only for themselves, but also for people they do not even know. They learn that many people are getting hurt or are experiencing pain in some way. They worry about those people and their well being. It is heartwarming and satisfying to observe this level of caring in children and youth. Affirm (and reaffirm) our UU Principle of the inherent goodness of every person and the importance of respecting all members of the human family. Explore ways to help others and ease the pain.
     
  • Maintain your daily family routines, which can be reassuring. Look for feelings behind their fear. Reassure young people, but don't stop there. Children and youth may feel sad or angry. Let them express that full range of emotions. Support the development of caring and empathy. Love them; hold them. Be the love you want to see and the world needs.
     
  • Help children and youth find a course of action. One important way to reduce stress and move beyond the feelings of helplessness is to take action. This is true for adults and youth and children. The action may be very simple or more complex. Let the young people help to identify the action choices. They may have wonderful ideas. A few suggestions are:
     
    • Write a letter to a relative and/or friend about their feelings;
       
    • In the spirit of "kids helping kids" write a letter/drawing/message of compassion and hope to a peer and send it to: U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Kids Helping Kids, 333 East 38th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10016 and they will distribute it through their network of schools and groups most affected by this tragedy;
       
    • Send money to help victims and their families;
       
    • Get involved in an organization committed to helping people, such as the Red Cross, UUSC, and local agencies;
       
    • Get involved in combating hatred through organizations such as Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democratic Renewal, Stop Hate on Campus, and others.
       
  • Take action and get involved together. It is not enough to let children or youth take action by themselves. Young people who know that their parents, minister/religious educator, teachers, or other significant caregivers are working to make a difference feel more hopeful. They feel safer and more positive about the future. So do something. It will make you feel more hopeful, too. And hope is one of the most valuable gifts we can give children and ourselves.
     
  • Be aware that racism may be directed against people of Arab descent or against any people of color and that discrimination may be directed at Muslims and followers of Islam. As people of faith, let us remember a central teaching of all great religions—love one another—and abide by the precept of all great faith traditions, "in the face of escalating violence, escalate love." Identify, discuss, and oppose expressions of prejudice, intolerance, and racism. Recognizing our place in the interdependent web of many cultures and faiths, let us respond with concrete examples in conversations with children and more philosophical discussions with adolescents.
     
  • Take time to worship together. Gather around the family table.
     
    • Symbolic items on the table could include a family candle, a peace crane, family crest or banner, and/or family UU chalice and poster of UU Principles. Play some favorite meditation music.
       
    • Light the chalice/candle and invite people to join in the spirit of prayer and meditation. Speak with a voice of sorrow and sadness for all that is broken, for all that gives such profound pain, and for overwhelming grief. Speak with a voice of protest and anger that this is what has come anew into our world (yet not really new to the world) and we seem powerless to change it. Speak with a voice of trust that our love is stronger than hate and grief, that the path of peace is still to be chosen over retaliation or revenge, and that coming together gives us strength which we need to face the days ahead. Rejoice in our UU faith that affirms the dignity of each person, that life is good and worth living, and that hope is the essence of our faith.
       
    • Invite family members to light a candle and share their feelings. Hold hands and dwell in silence together.
       
    • Sing "Spirit of Life" or "We Would Be One."
       
    • Close with a benediction and a song such as "Go Now In Peace" or "Love Will Guide Us."
       
  • Find your own support and healing group in your UU community, RE parents group, women's or men's group or with neighborhood parents. If it's more than you feel capable of handling alone—or if you need help in dealing with your own emotions, seek help from a professional—a clergy person, a pastoral counselor, a psychologist/social worker, or a family therapist.
     
    • First consider a minister (parish minister, minister of religious education or community minister). Most Unitarian Universalist clergy are trained with basic skills in counseling with a spiritual or religious foundation, and have had at least one unit in clinical pastoral education (CPE). Some have had advanced training in a particular specialization (e.g., aging, grief, family counseling).
       
    • Pastoral counselors have advanced or specialized training requiring supervision and/or certification in counseling. They are specially trained to help people connect to a variety of spiritual resources.
       
    • Psychologists and social workers—the training of secular psychologists (Ph.D. level) and social workers (master's or doctoral level) are trained to address a wide range of issues, but not all psychologists or social workers are counselors. If you are planning to see a psychologist, you may wish to locate one who has a specialty in loss, grief work, and/or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
       
    • Family therapists may include persons who self-identify as clinical psychologists, pastoral counselors or social workers.

Additional Resources Families

For more information contact religiouseducation @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

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