A LETTER TO THE YOUNGEST VICTIMS OF THE TERRORIST ATTACKS
By Kathie Scobee Fulgham

 

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Dear Children,

The thunderous explosions that rocked the whole world have shattered yours.

Why does the TV show the crashing plane, exploding and collapsing buildings over and over? Where is my Mom or Dad? Why can't the rescuers find him/her? Who could have done this terrible thing? Why is the whole nation crying?

Yours is a small voice in a crashing storm of questions arising from an act of war on the American people. But no answers will bring you comfort. And no answers will bring you closer to understanding, save one: Your Mom or Dad was in harm's way.

While our great nation bulks up for the first fight of the century, we, the Challenger children and all the children of public disasters, are hearing your hearts break, holding your hands and hugging you from afar. You are not alone. We want you to know that it will be bad - very bad - for a little while, but it will get better.

You see,15 years ago, before some of you were even born, I watched my father and his crew die in a horrible accident. Our loved ones were astronauts on board the space shuttle Challenger, which blew up a few minutes after take off. It all happened on live television. It should have been a moment of private grief, but instead it turned into a very public torture. We couldn't turn on the television for weeks afterward, because we were afraid we would see the gruesome spectacle of the Challenger coming apart a mile up in the sky.

My father died a hundred times a day on televisions all across the country. And since it happened so publicly, everyone in the country felt like it happened to them, too. And it did. The Challenger explosion was a national tragedy. Everyone saw it, everyone hurt, everyone grieved, everyone wanted to help. But that did not make it any easier for me. They wanted to say good-bye to American heroes. I just wanted to say good-bye to my Daddy.

Our nation mourns with you, for itself and for you. But yours is also a personal loss that is separate from this national tragedy. We hope this letter will bring you some comfort now or in the future, when you are strong enough - old enough - to read it. We want to prepare you for what's to come and to help you deal with this burden you never asked to bear. No one asked the people in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, or on the airplanes to give their lives in a war they had never volunteered to fight, against people they did not even know were plotting their deaths. Your Mom or Dad was innocent. They were just doing their jobs or traveling to see friends or family, but someone decided to make their everyday lives - and yours - a battlefield.

You've discovered by now that you won't be able to escape the barrage of news and the countless angles of investigation, speculation and exasperation. The 24-hour coverage will ebb and flow, but will blindside you in the weeks, months and years to follow when you least expect it. You will be watching television and then, suddenly, there will be those pictures - the plane, the towers, the cloud of dust, the fires, the people running. For other people watching, this will all be something called "history." To you, it's your life.

Just know that the media and public perception of this catastrophe aren't the same as yours. They can't know how painful it is to watch your Mom or Dad die several times each day. If they knew how much pain it caused, they would stop.

You imagine death like it is in a fairytale or like at Grandma or Grandpa's funeral. They look asleep and peaceful in their coffins. Their earthly bodies are tangible and recognizable. You can say good-bye to someone who looks like your loved one. But the physical proof - the recognizable person that was your Mom or Dad - is gone or not whole or not recognizable. Your mind can't accept it, even though your heart knows it. You know their spirit has gone to Heaven, but it's hard to say good-bye. You will find your own way to say good-bye in your own time.

You may feel sick when you think about his or her broken body. Your imagination might even carry you to new and scary depths and unspeakable images. You will be afraid to ask what happened because the answers might be worse than what you imagined. You'll torture yourself wondering if they felt pain, if they suffered, if they knew what was happening. They didn't. In the same way your brain doesn't register pain immediately when you break your arm, your Mom or Dad didn't know pain in their last moments of life on this earth.

You may have strange dreams or nightmares about your Mom or Dad being alive somehow, trapped in a pocket of the wreckage of the building or stranded or lost in some remote location after parachuting out of the plane before it crashed. They may call to you in your dream to come find them. You will wake up with such hope and determination, only to have the clouds of reality gather and rain fresh tears of exasperation and sadness on your face. These dreams are your subconscious self trying to make sense out of what your
conscious self already knows.

You will think about the last things you said to each other. Were they loving words or actions? Did we speak sharply to each other? Were we too sleepy or rushed to even have one last look at each other's faces? Rest easy. Their last thoughts were of you - the all of who you are - not the Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, you. And they were happy thoughts, all in a jumble of emotions so deep they are everlasting.

Everyone you know will cry fresh tears when they see you. People will try to feed you even though you know it all tastes like cardboard. They want to know what you think - what you feel - what you need. But you really don't know. You may not know for a very long time. And it will be an even longer amount of time before you can imagine your life without your Mom or Dad.

Some people, working through their own grief, will want to talk to you about the catastrophe, the aftermath, the rescue and recovery, or the actions that will be taken by our nation. Others will whisper as you walk by, "Her dad was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center," or "His mom was in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon," or "His dad was one of the firefighters who died when the buildings collapsed." This new identity might be difficult for you. Sometimes you will want to say to the whisperers, "Yes, that was my Dad. We are so proud of him. I miss him like crazy!" But sometimes you will want to fade into the background, wanting to anonymously grieve in your own way, in your own time, without an audience.

When those who loved your Mom or Dad talk with you, cry with you, or even scream with frustration and unfairness of it, you don't have to make sense of it all. Grief is a weird and winding path with no real destination and lots of switchbacks. Look on grief as a journey - full of rest stops, enlightening sites and potholes of differing depths of rage, sadness and despair. Just realize that you won't be staying forever at one stop. You will eventually move on to the next. And the path will become smoother, but it may never come to an end.

Ask the people who love you and who knew and loved your Mom or Dad to help you remember the way they lived - not the way they died. You need stories about your Mom or Dad from their friends, co-workers and your family. These stories will keep your Mom or Dad alive and real in your heart and mind for the rest of your life. Listen carefully to the stories. Tell them. Write them. Record them. Post them online. The stories will help you remember. The stories will help you make decisions about your life - help you become the person you were meant to be.

Just as a stronger nation will rise out of the grisly cinders and steel skeletal remains of buildings and airplanes, so will you be a stronger person. These events will shape your life in many different ways. You will wonder if you'll ever be safe again. You will. Our nation will wage a mighty war on terrorism. You will be protected. You can still believe in the future - in your future.

Please know that we are with you - holding you in our hearts, in our minds and in our prayers.

Kathie Scobee Fulgham, is the daughter of Dick Scobee, commander of the Space Shuttle Challenger on its final mission, January 28, 1986.

She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband and four children.

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