Living after the death of a parent

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, October 4, 2001 9:00pm
  • Local News

The networks have cut it out. We’re spared relentless replays of jetliners slamming into twin towers, fiery images that will forever shock. For me, it’s harder to look at little faces. Footage of a boy in a fire helmet is unbearable.

Headlines such as "The children left behind" and "Youngest victims must carry on without parents" are for me the emotional equivalent of scenes so appalling they are no longer aired on TV.

I can’t say I’ve been there.

No one has ever been there before, charged with comforting one of thousands of children whose parents died so violently, so publicly, on a single day, in a deliberate act against civilians. If we could hear them, the cries of collective pain would be deafening.

I’ll never know what Deena Burnett lives with now. According to the Chicago Tribune, the California woman was "feeding her three daughters breakfast" when the phone rang Sept. 11.

Her 38-year-old husband, Tom, was calling from United Flight 93, the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Burnett asked if he was OK. "No," he answered, "I’m on the airplane, and it’s been hijacked."

Three weeks later, I ache for Burnett, her girls and so many, many more.

It’s absurd to equate a mass murder of thousands to a heart-attack death of one. But turn off the TV, hide the newspapers, and the children of Sept. 11 share something with my children.

Someone had to tell each of them a parent was gone.

It’s a huge hole, huge. Think of New York City as a family and the ground-zero ruins as the wreckage left when a parent of a young child dies.

In scores of countries, in thousands of homes, behind drawn curtains, widowed parents — shattered themselves — had to put their arms around children with grave expressions and tell them.

I have half a dozen grief books, remnants of the blurry months after my husband died. The authors mean well. A book called "After He’s Gone" offers the following psych-speak tips for helping children:

"Honor their feelings … Be reassuring … Look into a support group for your children."

Not bad advice — on paper. I wonder, though. Do self-help authors withhold what it’s really like because it’s just too heartbreaking?

No book tells you what to do when a crack-up-funny 11-year-old, on the night his father dies, goes to bed at dinnertime, pulls a blanket around him, shuts his eyes and faces the wall. Is he asleep or pretending? Should you get him up? Make him talk? Leave him alone?

Only one writer I could find got it right. In his slim volume "A Grief Observed," the British author C. S. Lewis told of his young wife’s death from cancer. The story is told in the film "Shadowlands."

Lewis likens cruel death to amputation. You don’t get over it. You live with it.

I’m no psychologist. I’m a mother who had to help two kids out of darkness while bringing a third child into the world.

I’d like to sit down with Deena Burnett, and with Lisa Beamer, the pregnant widow of Todd Beamer. Their husbands were two of the four passengers credited with attacking the Flight 93 hijackers, surely averting a greater catastrophe.

I’d like to throw my arms around all those thousands of widowed parents. My tips won’t make it into any book.

No two kids are the same. One of mine will stay up all night talking, another barely mentions his father’s death. The third has just learned to say, "My dad is in heaven," as opposed to "My dad is seven."

Let them be who they are. My son went to one grief meeting for kids. He refused to go back; he went to the Everett Sausage Fest instead. I didn’t push it.

Muster some courage. (You’ll need to fake it.) I was afraid to take the kids camping alone, or to fly to Disneyland without their dad, or even to start the barbecue. We did it all anyway.

Don’t lower the bar. Experts will hate this, but I immediately guilt-tripped my children. I told them their dad wouldn’t want any changes, meaning grades, peers, staying out of trouble. They listened. So far, we’ve survived teen driving, dating, report cards and the SAT exam — without calamity.

The future is out there. You’ll worry that the money will run out. Apply for Social Security benefits for your kids. Don’t give up on college. Beg, borrow. There is money available.

I was glad to see former Sen. Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee, on CNN’s "Larry King Live" Tuesday. Dole has joined forces with Bill Clinton to raise scholarship money for terror victims’ survivors. By year’s end, these onetime political foes hope to raise $100 million for the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund (800-335-1102, or

That’s bright news in a bleak season.

Dreams did not die, not the dreams all those slain fathers and mothers had for all these children.

Contact Julie Muhlstein via e-mail at, write to her at The Herald, P.O. Box 930, Everett, WA 98206, or call 425-339-3460.

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