In earthquake's aftermath, L.A. families cling together L.A. EARTHQUAKE -- AFTERSHOCK

January 22, 1994|By Maria L. La Ganga | Maria L. La Ganga,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Elizabeth Park stands so close to her youngest daughter, Candice, that their slight shadows mingle in the flickering light of a campfire at the tent community in Petit Park. Across the street, her quake-damaged Granada Hills apartment is laced with cracks, perhaps to be condemned.

Ms. Park and her two daughters sleep in their car, a Pontiac 6000 that for many would be too close for comfort. But when they are together in that small steel bedroom, at least Elizabeth Park can hear her girls breathe, feel them toss and turn, know they are all right.

She will not leave the girls to go to work. She risks losing her job as a liquor store clerk by week's end -- a sacrifice to her new fear of separation.

As Southern California trembles slowly back to normal, one aftershock at a time, separation anxiety is an unexpected obstacle. Fearful parents bring their children to their jobs. Teen-agers ask to sleep with Mom and Dad again. Families camp near their ravaged homes -- just to be close by, just to keep them "safe."

Others won't leave their pets or their damaged possessions. It is a temporary paralysis with a simple mantra: I cannot leave my family, my house, my pets, my things. Not now. Not yet.

"I'm worried so much," Ms. Park laments. "But what can I do? I worry about my children. I need to go to my job. I need living-life money. But I cannot leave them."

At Granada Hills High School, where the Red Cross has set up a shelter, Marietta Sova puffs on her cigarette and cries. She has just dropped off her cat, 10-year-old Cricket, at West Valley Animal Shelter. Both are homeless since Monday's 6.6 earthquake smashed through Ms. Sova's Northridge apartment complex.

The vet, Ms. Sova says with a sniffle, said her cat would die if it continued to live in a cage in her car -- close enough for reassurance on these long sleepless nights, but hot and cramped during the warm days. Cricket, Ms. Sova says, "is like a child to me." When she dropped the animal off, "I felt like I was taking a child to an adoptive home."

Far from being irrational behavior, flashes of fear at even the thought of separation are "very realistic" and often "healthy," says Margaret Taylor, a licensed clinical social worker who has been counseling the quake-rattled at the Pasadena Mental Health Center this week.

While separation anxiety blossoms differently in everyone, what it amounts to is a belief that a loved one or cherished object is not safe alone, Ms. Taylor says. The reverse is true, too: "If [my loved ones] are not with me, I am not safe either. . . . Some people get a little overexcited about these things, but they're not crazy. They're realistic."

The more vulnerable the loved one, the greater -- and more reasonable -- the fear of separation, Ms. Taylor says. That fit Andrea Thompson Adam and her firstborn, Andrew, a 4-month-old child she left with a sitter for the first time just 10 days ago to return to work.

She has not left Andrew since 4:31 a.m. Monday and hates even to leave him alone with his father.

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