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Dealing with matters of life, and death

My son was four years old when al-Qaeda terrorists crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Centre in New York City, killing around 3,000 people. Sanchita Sharma writes.

health and fitness Updated: May 07, 2011 22:19 IST
Sanchita Sharma

My son was four years old when al-Qaeda terrorists crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Centre in New York City, killing around 3,000 people.

Like the rest of the world, my husband and I watched the destruction and grief unfold on live television, oblivious to the little boy watching and listening as he sat building Lego cars on his playrug. Just how much the disaster traumatised him became apparent a year later when my journalist husband was leaving for Afghanistan. When Aadi, now five, heard, he burst into tears. “Dad’s going to Afghanistan. Osama bin laden is there and he will kill him.”

I replied — prophetically — that bin Laden was in Pakistan. And with all the cops and armies of the world looking for him, he could not hurt people that easily anymore.

My child went back to bed, but I sat up wondering how I could have been so insensitive. I assumed he would not be interested in things he did not understand. I did not expect a four-year-old to understand that sometimes innocent people were killed mindlessly, so I took the ostrich approach and pretended the problem did not exist.

What was even stranger was that I carefully monitored the films and television shows he watched and did not get him toy guns to play with.

Yet, I did not think twice before watching and discussing world events — many of them destructive and gory — with him around.

Sixteen months later, astronaut Kalpana Chawla died when the Columbia Space Shuttle blew up on February 1, 2003. My son, not yet six, watched the news in horror, repeatedly asking if she had died. Again, I took the wuss path and told a white lie. “They haven’t found the body, she could be alive.” “How?” asked Aadi. “Oh, pilots can bail out before their planes crash,” I said.

By then, Aadi had started big school, where Chawla’s death was the topic of a lunch room discussion. He came back home and told me his stupid friends did not know, unlike him, that Chawla had bailed out and survived.

I felt lower than a heel. I sat him down and told him she was dead. ‘But why did you say she was alive?’ he asked. I said I lied because I did not want to hurt him. And I promised to never lie to him again. I haven’t.

Few parents realise how deeply world affairs effect children as young as three. If they are old enough to follow adult syntax, they are old enough to interpret events in their own limited way. While there are no studies for India, a nationwide US survey of adults 3-5 days after the September 11 attacks reported that one in three adults — 35% — said that their children had at least one stress symptom. Almost half reported that their children were worried about their own safety or the safety of a loved one even though they had not lost family or friends in the attacks.

It’s not possible to stop talking about things that hurt each time a child walks into the room. What you can do, however, is to put their fears to rest in a language they understand.