Talking Tragedy: How Do I Explain This?

by Drew Cotton

As we are all well aware, yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States. (Do you remember what the world was like pre-9/11? You might remember going to an airport and greeting passengers arriving from a flight directly at the gate, or going to a major-league baseball game without passing through a metal detector.) That day forever changed the American landscape and way of life. The last 16 years have seen a lot of anger, hate and fear. If you’re like me, you were a teenager that day, likely without a care in the world. Now we’re in our thirties, with children of our own.

September 11th is a somber day for me. I see the photos and videos reposted on Facebook and Instagram, and it takes me back to that moment in time. I feel more impacted by it now than I did at the time, watching it happen on live TV. I remember being very confused, frightened and angry.

Yesterday, I sat with N, our 8-year-old son, on the couch, enjoying a lazy moment. Like we do, I had my phone in my hand, and was quietly watching a video on Facebook with news footage from that day. N asked what I was watching, so I turned it up so he could watch, too. It was then, as we watched, I realized I had never really talked to him about what happened that day.

N just turned 8, and has recently started third grade. He is very interested in learning about historical figures and events. He asks a lot of questions about American history and the Founding Fathers, especially the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. We read at night, and we recently read  “Woods Runner,” by Gary Paulsen, about a young boy who winds up joining a band of rebels during the American Revolution. I do my best to explain what I know, being a bit of a history buff myself, but sometimes his fascination exceeds my grasp and I have to use my Google-fu to keep his appetite satisfied.

So here’s my question to you, as fellow parents: how do you explain such a horrible, life-changing tragedy like 9/11 to a child?

Back to us together on the couch, watching a video of Matt Lauer and Katie Couric giving the live commentary as the towers fell. I explained it like this: there was a group of people who were angry at us. They didn’t like us because of the way we lived. They decided to hijack airplanes (I had to pause to explain what “hijack” meant) and crash them into important buildings around the country to hurt as many people as they could.

I could tell that this troubled him, as he worked to wrap his little brain around that. I continued, showing him a video of hundreds of firefighters and police officers running toward the smoke and fire, the confused and injured crowds of people running through the streets, the terror and shock. I explained that the “bad guys,” as he put it, wanted to do something horrible to affect our way of life. I told him that they did, but not the way they expected. I explained that in every tragedy, when you see it on the news, you will see two things: you will see people running away, and you will see people running in to help.

Let me back up for a second and blather a little about myself. On September 11, 2001, I was 17-years-old, and a senior in high school. I was considering college, and struggling to come up with an idea of what I wanted to do with my life. My father was a former Deputy Sheriff, and a large majority of my family served in the military, including my older brother and some very close older friends. I had been considering joining the military with an eventual career in law enforcement. That day flipped a switch for me. I knew then what I was going to do. I needed to contribute to something larger than myself and do something to help. It took me a while, but on April 3, 2003, I enlisted in the Wyoming Army National Guard, where I served for seven years over two combat deployments to Iraq.In the meantime, I went to work as a Deputy Sheriff, where I’m still employed. I’m what is referred to as a “Nine-Twelver,” meaning I walked into the recruiter’s office the day after 9/11 and wanted to sign up. That day sparked my journey into servitude. Since I was 19, I’ve devoted myself to helping people.

Back to the couch, I told N about how that day changed my life, and I made the decision to be a “helper,” one of the people who runs into trouble instead out. He asked how many people were killed that day, and I had to sheepishly reply “more than you can count.” N asked me if any of the helpers died, and that one choked me up. I explained that 343 firefighters and 71 police officers went into those buildings to get people out to safety, and they gave their lives to save as many people as they could. N asked me if I would have ran in with them, and I replied that without a second’s hesitation, I would have.

The video we watched was about ten minutes long, and started with the shocked faces of onlookers as the first plane hit the North Tower. Skip to a flood of police cars and fire trucks, cops and firefighters in bunker gear and helmets running toward the buildings. The video, thankfully, didn’t show the planes impacting the Towers, nor did it show the collapse, but it showed the smoke and chaos. I remember watching it happen, it’s burned into my memory, so I’ll pass on watching it again.

What helped drive my point home was whenthe video showed what happened after. It showed the flood of first responders from all points across the map and the volunteers, who came forward to help. They locked stepped, shoulder-to-shoulder, and waded into the dust to dig for survivors and remains. They cooked food, and gave blood, blankets and water. They were united in a common goal, to do something. To help.  There was a snippet with a motley gang of what appeared to be construction workers in hard hats walking up the street toward Ground Zero. The cameraman asked one man “What’s the job in there?” The man kept walking and replied “Whatever it is, if you help save someone, that’s one life saved.”

I told N about the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93\ and how they stood up to their hijackers and fought back. I told him about my visit several years ago to the Flight 93 crash site and memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I explained that it took an incredible amount of courage to do what those passengers did, and that it was a great honor to visit their memorial and remember them as heroes. He asked if they died as well, so I said they did, but they died saving many more lives.

I felt bad for a moment, telling my young son about all this death and tragedy. Normally his biggest worry is deciding which Star Wars t-shirt he’s going to wear that day. I saw heartache and sadness on his little face, a bit of understanding into the dull pain we’ve all felt in our hearts the last 16 years. Part of me feels very guilty for exposing him to it, but the patriot and realist in me knows that he’s going to learn about it eventually, so I wanted him to hear about it from someone who changed their life because of it.

So in the end, I explained to N that the “bad guys” did change our country. They united us in a common goal. To help each other, and to comfort each other. Do you remember that swollen pride we experienced when every American, regardless of race, religion, political alignment banded to together? How, in the face of such horrible tragedy, we were united as a nation? I tried my best to show him the light shining through the darkness in tragedy, that there’s always people willing to help, and if there isn’t anyone there helping, that he should be the person to help.

I know it’s hard for him to understand how deeply that day impacted my life and how it always will, especially since he didn’t live through it like we did. It’s like watching an old newsreel, it probably doesn’t seem real to him. But he sees the good in it and he has a deep respect for life, so all told, I guess I’ve told the story right. More than anything, I wish I could explain to him the way life was before, without that pang of pain and fear, and a somber day of remembrance every year.

Have you told your kids about that day and how it affected you? Have they asked you about it from something they saw on TV, or from something one of their friends told them at school? It’s hard to put tragedy into words in a way that a kiddo can understand, especially something on that grand of a scale. For me, the worst part is knowing I’ll have to explain it all again to my youngest son B, who is only 4, and isn’t ready to understand all of that.

I can only hope that like me, and like his big brother seemed to get, the world can always use more helpers.

Stock images from Pexels.

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