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Helping My Kids Understand the September 11 Terrorist Attacks

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I’m not a particularly religious person. When asked, I check the box “spiritual, not religious” on questionnaires. Still, once a year, I find myself walking through the doors of the local Catholic church into the quiet incense scented space. I walk to the table of candles flickering in the ever-present breeze and push a few dollars into the box waiting nearby. I light a blackened wick. For a few moments, I stand at the table sending my thoughts along the curling tendrils of flame and smoke into the heavens.

And I remember.

I began my little tradition three years after September 11, 2001. The first anniversary of those events brought candlelight vigils and ceremonies. The second anniversary saw a few more, but by the third, the ceremonies and services had begun to disappear. We were admonished to never forget, but as is the way with life, new tragedies, new reasons to remember overshadowed the old. On that third year, I opened up my phone book — back when phone books were easier than a web search — and called several local churches, looking for a sacred place where I could light a candle and remember that terrible day in my own way. 

When Joseph was born, it seemed a simple enough thing to bring him with me. I carried him on my hip as I lit my candle, shushing his baby shrieks in the empty room. The next year, I held his hand as he toddled in. Each year, I brought my children as I lit my candle until last year when Joseph finally thought to ask questions.

I kept my answers short, appropriate, I thought, for a 7-year-old. But, as 7-year-olds do, he asked a lot of questions. I should have been prepared. It had never occurred to me that he might wonder why his mother lit a candle each year.

We don’t live in New York City, where the scars from the buildings bore witness. We didn’t know anyone in the planes or in the towers. We don’t even know anyone who knew someone who was there. So how do I explain why I feel this need to remember those people every year for so many years? Especially when I can’t really explain it to myself?

“A long time ago,” and I paused there, unable to believe it had been over a decade, “some men flew airplanes into two buildings in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and crashed one in Pennsylvania. A lot of people were hurt or killed. When we light our candle, we remember them.” The answer felt too simple. How can I explain that in our country’s history that date is a line of before and after? How can I tell him of the thousands who died, many of whom were running into the building to help others, rather than out of it to escape harm?

“Why did they do that?” 

That’s the question most difficult to answer, the most complex. “They were bad men.” 

“Like Storm Troopers?”

“Sort of. But what you have to remember is how many good guys were there. So many of them who died saving other people and we light a candle because heroes should never be forgotten.”

It satisfied him, but each year, I know the questions will continue and one day he will want to know more. It will be an event he studies in history books. He’ll read the articles, perhaps watch archival news footage. We will discuss it in further detail, perhaps delving into the long-term ramifications of the events of that day. Maybe, one day, I’ll get busy and not make it to the church. Maybe I’ll forget to light a candle, and he and his sister won’t ask any questions and September 11 will be just another day.

But not today. Today we still remember.

How do you help your children remember 9/11?