Attacks likely to leave thousands without a parent

Communities struggle to counsel bereft young

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - From the Cantor Fitzgerald bond trading firm alone, the estimate is staggering: 1,500. Not the number of victims.

The children they left behind.

No list has been compiled of children who lost a father or mother at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, or on the four planes that terrorists took to fiery ends. But the number of bereft youngsters will probably stretch well into the thousands.

As families finally lay hope aside, accepting that those missing are gone, communities face an unprecedented challenge: how to comfort, and raise, all the children who lost a parent - in some cases their only parent - in an event of epic dimension.

The task is complicated by postwar social trends - from high divorce rates to single parenthood - that mean that many of the families were already fragmented. And it is colored by the demographics of those lost. Thousands were in their 20s, 30s or 40s. While many had not yet started families, many others had brought a new generation into the world.

It is a generation in its infancy, with possibly thousands of children under 12. Many are so young they will have no memory of their mothers or fathers, let alone how they died.

Many of the hundreds of lost bond traders and firefighters had produced large families. That now means large broods left fatherless or motherless. Some of the almost 350 firefighters who died left behind five or more children each.

As if their husbands had gone off to war, not work, vast numbers of young widows are faced with raising children alone. For some fathers left behind, it will mean reaching for female relatives to help rear a daughter. And if the attacks have created thousands of newly single parents, they also took many single parents, leaving some children orphaned.

Even seasoned grief counselors say they have no sense of how these children will cope with their loss and their upended lives. While the AIDS epidemic, for example, stole thousands of parents prematurely, it took years to do it, as did wars. This time, in one day, often in one neighborhood, scores of children are suddenly missing parents.

"We've never been faced with anything of this magnitude simultaneously," said Ruth Kreitzman, a clinical social worker who counsels bereaved children with the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, the country's largest mental health agency.

"Even people who have dealt with bereaved kids a lot are struggling to understand now how this will be interpreted by children."

Families are refiguring care-taking, and in some cases undertaking custody negotiations. At the same time, relatives are struggling with how, and when, to explain to children that parents are no longer missing, but dead. And they are trying to tell the young what death means.

The Rev. Jim Cunningham was at Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn when Tara Stackpole told her five children that the body of their father, Fire Capt. Timothy Stackpole, had been found. "They look at that as a gift," he said, "because so many people don't have that."

Luis Espinoza, whose wife, Fanny, is missing, said his 11-year-old son is still hoping. The boy tells his father that he is trying to concentrate in school but cannot stop thinking about the twin towers. He asks Espinoza questions such as, "Why didn't those buildings have parachutes?" Or: "Why didn't you tell her to quit? She wanted to quit before."

"I said I didn't know this was going to happen," said Espinoza, who lives in Teaneck, N.J. "Nobody knew this was going to happen."

It appears that many more men than women were lost in the attacks. New widows such as Minerva Mentor-Portillo are just beginning to grapple with how they will raise children alone. Mentor-Portillo has two sons, 5 and 7, and has been working toward a graduate degree in social psychology. She must now figure out on her own everything from the family's financial future to child care.

Single mothers were also lost.

Among them was Rosa Julia Gonzalez, 32, who used her last phone call from the World Trade Center to ask her sister to care for her 12-year-old daughter.

Gene Springer had raised his stepdaughter, Samantha Fishman, as his own; she generally saw her father every other weekend. But her mother, Lucy Fishman, 36, died in the World Trade Center. So in a week, 11-year-old Samantha will leave her home, school and friends in Brooklyn, and move to Long Island to live with her father. She will leave behind her 3-year-old half-brother, Jason Springer, who will stay in Brooklyn with his father.

"That day is going to be horrible," said Springer, 33, who had been a stay-at-home dad while his wife worked as an executive secretary at Aon Research. "Half my family is gone."

Jason, meanwhile, has not asked once for his mother, Springer said, although he was very close to her. Instead, he clings to his father. Springer said in some ways he is grateful his son is so small. "At this age he's Winnie the Pooh and Blues' Clues. He's fortunate. Ignorance is bliss."

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