The Kids They Left Behind

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 … “

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.

“I got so scared,” says Weinberg, a pretty, sporty seventh-grader with a heart-shaped face and a curly mop she subdues with goop. “I called my mother during lunch. She said she talked to Daddy after the first plane hit and he was trying to get out, but … um … ” Her eyes fill up. She can’t finish the sentence. Her mother, Laurie, walks over to her daughter’s bed and rubs her shoulders, waiting to see if she’ll say something. She has yet to coax a long discussion out of her daughter about her father’s death.

“I didn’t eat anything,” Lindsay finally says. “At lunch. That day. I was really, like, not in school.” That evening, Lindsay went to a friend’s house. “When I came back, there were billions of cars. My mom came down the driveway and said she hadn’t heard from him. So … ” She can’t finish that sentence either. She looks at me imploringly and starts to cry.

Steven Weinberg worked as an accounting manager for Baseline Financial Services. He and his daughter were very close. Last year, he coached her basketball team, though he wasn’t much of an athlete. (“I’d always pull him aside and say, ‘Daddy, calm down!’ “)

Lindsay has two siblings: Sam, who’s 8, and Jason, who’s 6. “My 8-year-old is acting out a little bit,” says Laurie Weinberg, an attractive, articulate brunette who works part-time as a medical biller. “He’s louder than usual, and he needs to be told to do something five times instead of the normal three. And the first week or so, every little thing made my 6-year-old cry. But in the last few days, he’s changed. I think the memorial service helped him gain closure. I think it helped all of us gain closure.”

Lindsay’s reticence, though, still makes her fret. “When I try to get her to talk,” says Laurie, “she just cries. I think she just can’t find the words. But her friends have been very supportive. They’ve enveloped her into a social life. Amazing. They’re only 11 and 12.”

That first week, in fact, Lindsay’s friends kept slipping out of class to phone her while she stayed at home with her mother. Since then, they’ve called or stopped by almost every day.

“It’s hardest when I’m by myself,” she says. “That’s when I start to cry.”

She looks around her room. There are sports trophies on the bookshelf, memory candles at the foot of the bed, photo collages of camp pals covering the walls.

“After the service, I got a letter from my friend,” she suddenly says. “It said all these things. It said so many things. Like … um … You want to see?”

I nod; she takes a seat at her computer and logs on to AOL. “My dad was really into the computer,” she says. “He’d be on it all night. He used to e-mail me when I was at camp.” She wipes her nose with a tissue and points, points, clicks.

There are probably a dozen or so messages dated 9/11/01. One: i am so sorry for the worrying and frustration that you are going through right now … Another: dont know u all too well but im in c wing and i hear ur dad is missing im very sorry to hear that and give u all my sympathy … A third: we know that ur dad is in some hospital somewhere trying to contact u and tell him that hes all ryte! im so sorry that ur dad can not be w/u 2day but u know by 2morrow u will be in his arms.

“I also got a phone call from this girl I had an argument with in fifth grade and haven’t really spoken to since,” says Lindsay. “She gave me a hug the next day.”

She stands up. Lindsay is a full inch taller than her mother, though she just turned 12 years old. I ask if there’s any message she’d like to impart about her father for this story. She shrugs, apologizes, and blinks back tears.

Standing over the keyboard, she finds the e-mail she was looking for. It’s dated 9/29/01, the day after her father’s memorial service.

hey linz! what’s up… . i can’t describe to u and tell u how sorry i am … when i was at the service yesterday i didn’t know how u survived … i mean i’m just one of ur best friends and i knew ur dad farely well and i was hesterical crying … linz what i want to say to u is that u have all my sympathy and i will ALWAYS ALWAYS be here for u!! if u EVER need to talk to someone please come to me …

Love always and forever,


She looks up. Tears are rolling down her pink cheeks. “What I miss about him most,” she says, “is, I guess, um, everything. How about everything?”

The Kids They Left Behind