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The Kids They Left Behind


She waits to regain her composure. "I've been trying to stay strong," she continues. "But I really lost it in front of him. I don't want him to feel like he has to comfort me, but it's hard, because I really don't know what to say to stuff like that. I try mostly to say I'm crying because Mommy is sad, but I won't feel this way forever, and we won't feel this way forever."

For now, Aidan's mourning seems to take the form of avoidance and small renunciations. He won't watch his Star Wars tapes anymore -- he and his father used to watch them regularly, used to spend hours impersonating the various characters -- and he recently declared he no longer wants to be a firefighter.

"And you know what?" Fontana says. "I hope he doesn't become one, either."

At the beginning of Forbidden Games, the chilling World War II movie by René Clément, the parents of the 5-year-old protagonist die right before her eyes, during a strafing of the French countryside by the Germans. A peasant family takes her in, but soon after, something strange starts to happen: All the crosses from their little town start to vanish. It turns out the girl has been quietly hoarding them, one at a time, hoping to create a giant graveyard for all the farm animals who've passed away.

That's the poetic version of a young child's grief. The real thing is often more raw. Laura Loumeau-May, an art therapist in New Jersey, is seeing four families right now who lost parents in the World Trade Center. One little girl made a mask -- her clients love making masks -- that looked like a burn victim: splotchy, scarred, blood-red. A little boy, when given a set of watercolors, painted a "metal bird" piercing a giant rectangle, which happened to have an antenna on top. A number of children -- independently, from different grieving families -- have made beelines for her sandbox, burying buildings and dolls, then sending search-and-rescue parties in after them.

"My dad was really into the computer," says Lindsay Weinberg. "He used to e-mail me when I was at camp."

"The other thing that's happening is with our dollhouse," says Loumeau-May. "One child, a very young child, kept lining up dolls on the top floor and then -- whoosh! -- sweeping them out. Of course, I've had other kids who've knocked the dolls off the dollhouse, but it was usually because they were angry at that moment, or because they were getting an audience together, looking for the shock value. Not this one. He was very absorbed with this activity. He kept doing it over and over."

Aidan Fontana has lately been obsessed with a play hospital set at his therapist's office. "He'll put a doll on a stretcher and cover it with a blanket," says his mother. "It's all very metaphorical." A toy school set has also captured his attention. During a recent session, he announced that one of the little-boy dolls didn't want to go to class that day.

"Why?" his therapist asked him.

"Because he's afraid his mommy won't come pick him up."

Christopher W. Wodenshek, the head of the electricity-brokerage department at Cantor Fitzgerald, had five children. His 37-year-old wife, Anne, now raises them alone. Zachary is 2. He tells people that his father has died, because that's what he's heard, but he keeps asking when his daddy is coming home. William, next in line, is 4. "He takes everything out on me," says Wodenshek. "He hits me, he punches me, he says, 'It's not fair, I don't have a daddy anymore.' "

Anne's 6-year-old, Mollie, grinds her teeth at night and begs her mother not to remarry. Sarah, her 9-year-old, says she's physically sick -- her arms hurt, her pulse races, her heart bumps and rattles in its cage. During the first week, one of her classmates told her she'd seen her father's car at the train station overnight. "I called the principal and told her to tell that kid to shut her fat mouth," says Wodenshek. "Kids say stupid things, you know?"

Wodenshek's 8-year-old daughter, Haley, is probably the most devastated. "She cries a lot," she says. "And she doesn't want to go to school. In fact, she doesn't want to believe it's true. She said, 'Well, Mommy, in Cast Away, the man came back after four years.' And I said, 'Honey, that was a movie.' She was really attached to my husband. Really attached."

A few weeks ago, Wodenshek had a dream that she was driving down the highway with all of her children when she noticed that a jumbo jet above her was reversing its course. It was aiming for her. "My kids won't even think about flying anymore," she almost whispers. "Unless I'm flying the plane myself."

Since September 11, the girls have all slept together in the Wodensheks' old bed. Anne sleeps in a separate room with her young sons. "I recently read in the paper something a psychologist said," she says. "She said those who lose parents to death fare better than those who lose a parent to divorce. I don't know if it's true, but I was relieved to read it. I was worried: Were my children going to be Timothy McVeigh? You know? I worry."

Perhaps one of the biggest problems with childhood grief is detecting it. Mourning in young ones is often eccentric, subtle, exquisitely concealed; many are reluctant to aggravate their surviving parent's sadness with their own. "A lot of these kids will look okay," says Goodstein. "But many of their parents will also want them to look okay. So there'll be this collusion between the parents and kids, because they'll both want everything to be fine. But the children may be quietly grieving for years."

Sometimes, in fact, that grief is so strong it seeps into future generations, affecting the way the bereaved raise their children, and how those children raise theirs. "Often," says Goodstein, "I'll wind up seeing one of these kids when he's in his forties. He'll tell me he's never seen his father's grave site, he's not even sure he knows where his father is buried. And then he'll add, 'You know, I'm not sure whether this affected me or not.' "

And of course it has. But not necessarily only for the worse. The one thing that can be said of losing a parent is that it serves as a profound stimulus, perhaps the most profound stimulus a child can have. Such suffering certainly has the potential to stir up unimaginable difficulties. But it also has the potential to spur unimaginable growth.

Lindsay Weinberg, age 12, first started hearing rumors about the attack on the World Trade Center at ten o'clock on Tuesday morning, after a classmate came back from a trip to the orthodontist. The teachers at Felix V. Festa Middle School in West Nyack decided to say nothing about it -- they thought it best for parents to break the news -- but by eleven o'clock, Lindsay knew there had to be some truth to it; her fourth-period class was only half full.

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