Three weeks ago, Ellen Shea drove her 4-year-old son, Colin, to see a therapist -- the first therapist she or anyone in her family had ever seen. "Why are we doing this?" asked Colin, squirming in the backseat. His sisters, ages 7 months and 2 years, were at home with a baby-sitter. "What is this for?"
Is that Dan talking? Her son was speaking in a pitch-perfect imitation of his father. Shea said nothing. She kept her eyes on the road.
On the evening of September 11, Shea told Colin that there'd been a terrible accident at Daddy's building, that a plane had hit it, that the plane had made the building fall down. Colin's father was a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald. He died that day along with his brother, Joseph, another Pelham resident and top executive at the firm. "Then I said that Daddy's not coming home, so we had to look for him in our hearts," she says. "I didn't want him to think it was permanent, but who was I kidding? It just seemed like a way to give Colin faith." And a way to maintain continuity. "I tell him that if he speaks to him, Daddy can hear," she says. "And after we read books at night, I say, 'Tell daddy about your day.' "
The therapist's office was in a small apartment complex in Scarsdale. Shea parked, walked in, and took a seat on a leather chair with a tapestry pillow. Her son headed for a children's corner filled with toys. "My dad is dead," he calmly told the psychiatrist, a kindly woman in loose-fitting clothing. The doctor tried to get Colin to elaborate, but he didn't. She tried to get him to draw what happened at the World Trade Center, but he wouldn't. He played with some action figures. The session ended. Shea still isn't sure what to make of it.
"I don't think he conceptualizes this," she explains. "He's only wept once this whole time, and it was very short -- he was on to cartoons ten minutes later. So when I took him to see this woman, I thought, Is this bad? Am I just creating more drama? Four and a half is a very magical age. Children that age handle things far better than we do . . . " She hesitates. "Maybe it just wasn't a good fit," she says. "Or it could be the Irish culture: Let's not sit on a couch and create things. I don't know."
She worries. Colin's grief barely shows on the surface. But memories of his father still crowd his imagination. "Dan used to do this thing," she abruptly says. "He'd go into Colin's room every night before bed and say, 'Guess who's my best friend? You!' " Her voice, strong and even until this moment, starts to break. "The night after my husband's service, Colin crawled into bed with me, and he said, 'Hey, mom! Guess who's my new best friend? You!' " She starts to sob. "And I was like, Is that Dan talking? Dan? Is that you?"
On September 11, as many as 10,000 children lost a parent in the World Trade Center. A few lost both mother and father; many more were robbed of the only parent they had. A startling number were also very, very young; flip through the sketches of the deceased in the Times, and you realize how many victims were young family men, fellows who still had the stamina to work Wall Street hours or the strength to charge up dozens of flights of stairs with 80 pounds of firefighting equipment on their backs.
Loss is a part of their children's legacy now. It will likely play a part in the friends their boys and girls choose, the professions they pursue, the spouses they marry, the kinds of parents they'll make. The attack's abruptness, vividness, and mysterious provenance only compounds their emotional burden. How a child loses a parent matters. It matters a lot.
"In a calamity such as this, something so extraordinarily different from anything that's happened in the past, every problem increases exponentially," says Charles Goodstein, who spent the early days of the disaster coordinating an outreach program through the NYU Psychoanalytic Institute. "There's been a disruption in the mental life of all these kids. The things that allowed for a certain stability -- and the things that would have allowed a child to get on in life -- have been altered. Not even altered. Removed."
For children as young as Colin Shea, processing the death of a parent is doubly challenging, since the concept of death hardly exists. "It requires a huge leap of the imagination for a child to contemplate his or her parent turning to dust," says Goodstein. "As an adult, I can't even imagine it. But for a kid, you're asking them to come up with this really abstract thought. It takes a while before kids can do that."
Since the Second World War, much has been written about childhood grief: how young children can become clingier, more demanding, and more impulsive when they lose a parent; how older children can lash out and become even more fierce about their burgeoning, tenuous independence. But ultimately, inevitably, each child grieves in his or her own way. What seems to be most important is how the remaining parent engages the child about his sorrow.
This is especially true in the case of the World Trade Center, where the media have had such a large role in shaping the images of the deceased. "Everybody describes the victims as heroes," says Donald Rosenblitt, clinical director of the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary, North Carolina. "And this is a complicated matter, because in reality, some may have been heroes, but others were just people who were in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Which isn't to take away from the tragedy, you understand. But their children may feel frozen, as if they don't have permission to examine the reality of their relationships -- or to be angry."
One thinks, in particular, of the children of the city's firefighters. "The father who's a hero might have been a regular guy at home," says Rosenblitt. "In fact, maybe he wasn't home much. Or maybe he had a bad temper." He pauses. "You know, his professional choices might one day raise questions. His kids might ask: Why did he choose to put himself in harm's way for strangers? Why didn't he love me enough to choose me?"
For now, Aidan Fontana does not seem to be asking such questions. His father, Dave Fontana, was part of Squad 1, the elite rescue unit in Park Slope that lost twelve men. "I've tried to be honest with him from the very beginning," says Aidan's mother, Marian, a charismatic performer and freelance writer. "I told him, 'Some really mean men crashed a plane into the Twin Towers, and it fell down while Daddy was trying to save people from the fire. His fireman friends are trying to find him, but Daddy might be dead or he might have a lot of boo-boos.' " To her amazement, Aidan didn't have much of a reaction. "I think he thought his dad was a superhero," she says. "I think he thought Dave was just going to get up and walk out of there."
The next day, as friends and relatives descended on the Fontanas' tiny apartment in Park Slope, Aidan demanded to know why so many people were at his house, and why so many of them were crying. "I explained that everyone misses Daddy, that we're worried about Daddy," Fontana says. Yet Aidan still didn't cry. Instead, he disappeared into his room. A few minutes later, he emerged with an armload of stuffed animals and began distributing them to the mourners, one by one.
Six weeks later, Aidan still hasn't cried. He's a jaunty, straightforward sort of kid, tall for his age, with a bouncy gait and giant, searching brown eyes. Instead, he asks lots of questions. He's eager to know whether Dave can walk on clouds. (Fontana is consulting with a priest on that one: How vivid should her depiction of Heaven be?) Last week, as Fontana was making funeral arrangements, Aidan got confused: Had they found Daddy's parts? "I don't know where he got the 'parts' thing from," she says. "I was stunned. He must be taking in more than I thought.
"Last night was hard," Fontana continues. "He asked, 'Who's gonna be my daddy now?' He's been asking that a lot. So I tried to explain the permanence of it. I said, 'Well, he's always going to be your daddy, but he's a spirit now, in Heaven.' He asked if he was an angel, and I said, 'I think so.' Then he said he was going to go up and clip his wings and make him come home. That killed me . . . "