Mama Madison: Faraway fears, fear at home

Discussing disaster with kids

Like so many others, I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard about the terrorist attacks of 9-11. I was about to walk into the 9 a.m. class I was teaching when a colleague told me about the collapse of Tower 2. Many of my students that semester were from New York City and were panicked about contacting their families. I spent our class time helping them to make phone calls home while glued to the TV in the J-School lounge. Call it maternal instinct or just human nature; I needed to make sure my classroom "kids" felt safe.

My oldest two children were just four and one during this time of crisis. My simple story in explaining the attacks to my eldest was that some very bad men flew their airplanes into big buildings in New York City. He didn't seem too worried (he's never been wired for angst) and I saw no reason to discuss it further or have the TV on in the background at home. None of us needed to see the image of the towers tumbling again and again -" it was just too much.

Then came the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. With both, I could still comfort my little ones with the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, Madison never had or could have a tsunami or hurricane. While I have no idea if this is factually true, it seemed to allay any fears.

The kids were much older for Haiti - 12, 10 and seven. This time there was no avoiding the news reports, photographs and "We Are the World" remake. We talked about the earthquake at dinner and donated as a family to telethons. And while I am proud of my children for their willingness to bust open their piggy banks to help, the whole experience still felt somewhat remote and abstract. The kids were trying to empathize with victims, but with emotional distance; Haiti may as well have been on the other side of the world, not just 600 miles off the U.S. shore.

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated northeast Japan almost two weeks ago was much further away in actual miles, but hit a lot closer to home for us. This school year, one of my now 11-year-old's closest friends is spending his mom's sabbatical living in Tokyo.

When I wandered downstairs early Friday morning, March 11, I was expecting to catch up on protests and Facebook, not to confront another frightful disaster. Upon reading the news, all I could think about was my selfish need to know that my son's friend was ok, not just for his families sake, but also for mine. It was bad enough that our family breakfast conversation was going to be about yet another devastating earthquake. I just couldn't imagine having to send my son off to school without the knowledge that his buddy and family were fine.

I fired off an email right away to our friend in Japan and, amazingly, she got back to me within minutes. She and her son had been home at the time of the earthquake, felt the movement, but were fine. Both her husband and eighth grade daughter had been out of the house, he at the doctor, and she at school. They were on route using a very crowded, crazy and panicked public transportation system.

I wasn't more than a few seconds into telling my kids about the disaster that morning when my son asked, "And what about Anthony?" I told him that I'd heard from his mom and that everything seemed to be ok. I had mixed emotions as I sent my 11 year old off to school a bowl of cereal later. I was, of course, elated that we both knew his friend was fine. I also felt guilty knowing that so many moms, especially in Japan, couldn't say the same thing. Was it ok to be feeling relieved, when so many families were still in pain?

I recognize how important it is to manage kids' fears in these types of situations; two of mine are prone to nervousness and I'd never knowingly want to burden them with increased anxiety. But at the same time, it is hard for me to soften the fact that over 8,000 people so far have died in Japan and that, given the radiation situation, many of the long term effects of the disaster will not be known for years. It's a bitter pill, but is it one I should be having them swallow?

How do you balance wanting to be truthful with your kids about these types of crises without scaring them too much? How has your family discussed the devastation in Japan?

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