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Surviving 9/11: How to Talk to Kids About the Death of a Parent

Surviving 9/11: How to Talk to Kids About the Death of a Parent

Nothing was more wrenching for widow Jennifer Gardner Trulson than telling her two young children that their father was never coming back. Douglas Gardner died in the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers, where he worked at brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Gardner Trulson's new book, Where You Left Me, tells the moving story of how she and her children slowly came to terms with their enormous loss.

To mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we will be sharing excerpts from Where You Left Me. Below, Gardner Trulson's sage words on helping children through the death of a parent.

1.  Tell children the truth in an age appropriate manner: To this day, the most heart wrenching, unbearable memory of September 11 was the moment I had to tell the kids that Daddy was gone.  But, it was also the moment I had to find the strength as a parent to give each child the information he/she needed to cope.  It didn’t make sense to try to spare them from learning how their father died; they’d learn it soon enough from others.  I wanted them to hear the news accurately from me, in age-appropriate, truthful language they could absorb.   My two-year-old was too young to understand, but my nearly five-year-old son needed facts, which I told him with in a calm, clear voice.


Of course, one should shield children from graphic and horrific images of a catastrophic event.  I certainly kept them away from the news channels and removed newspapers that featured the burning towers.  I also continued a dialogue with my son over several days until he could digest his father’s death and its cause.  As both of my children have grown, their perception of the attacks has evolved and matured.  New insights and questions arise, and our dialogue continues today as needed to help them further process the loss of their father.

2.  Project confidence and reassure children of their safety:  It is generally best for a parent to explain to his/her children the events surrounding a person’s death.  My five-year-old feared that “bad people” would hurt us too.  At that point, the age-appropriate response was to tell him that the Trade Center attack was a one-time, horrible thing and wouldn’t happen again.  I didn’t want him to be afraid to walk to school or go to sleep at night.   He needed to feel that the world is a reasonably safe place.  More importantly, I forced myself to project confidence and answer his questions matter-of-factly to show him that I was a competent parent on whom he could rely for information, comfort and protection.

3.  Try to preserve your children’s daily routine:  In the days and weeks following the attacks, good-intentioned friends and neighbors bombarded me with offers to “take” my children to allow me to cope.  My apartment became Grand Central Station with grieving people gathering to support us.  I appreciated every kind gesture, but I felt that disrupting the kids’ normal daily routine would be detrimental.  I decided to keep the kids on their regular school and activity schedule and enforce bed and meal times.  Losing their father was unsettling enough; it was important that they could rely on a predictable routine that preserved for them a sense of normalcy.

4.  Share your emotions:  Children are great observers and recognize when someone is trying to hide his/her emotions.  Though I tried not to dissolve completely in front of the kids, I also didn’t try to shield them from my sorrow.  Sometimes we cried together, and I always validated their emotions and frustrations.  I also wasn’t afraid to let them know I didn’t have all of the answers.  My son once asked when we would feel better.  I told him I didn’t know, but we would help each other through it.  This grieving team effort made coping a little less lonely and gave us a safe space within which to take care of each other.

Jennifer Gardner Trulson is a 9/11 widow and the founder of the Douglas B. Gardner Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children in New York. She graduated from Tufts University and received a J.D. from Harvard. She lives with her husband and two children in Manhattan. Her new book, Where You Left Me, tells the story of her family's unimaginable loss, and also the resilience, friendship, and love that helped them heal.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

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