Grace Christ directs program supporting families of 9/11 firefighters

September 1, 2004 @ 4:00 am

A September 2004 article in The Record describes a project created by Professor Grace Christ.

Despite constant painful and traumatic reminders of their loss from terror alerts, the 9/11 Commission’s report, media scrutiny and the approaching third anniversary of the tragedy, the widows and children of the 343 New York City firefighters killed that September morning have achieved great strides.

“The families have shown an awesome ability to respond to enormous public and private challenges in spite of their intense personal pain,” said Grace Christ, associate professor at the School of Social Work and director of the FDNY Family Assessment and Guidance Program, a five-year initiative providing supportive interventions to affected firefighter families and studying the processes of recovery, funded partly through the school.

Since early 2002, Christ’s program, supported by Project Liberty funds of the New York City Fire Department’s Counseling Service Unit, the Charles Bronfman Foundation and the Open Society Institute, has been providing help and in-depth research on factors affecting the recovery of families from the World Trade Center disaster. The program is a continuation of Christ’s previous work assisting children who lost a parent to cancer.

Some 48 widows and their 115 children have taken part in the program, which involves faculty and doctoral student counseling teams providing home visits throughout the greater metropolitan area. Using standard psychological measures and clinical interviews, the counselors determine each family member’s level of coping with the stresses they face, and respond as necessary.

Christ described the trajectory identified so far: “The first year was one of chaos, uncertainty about finding remains, constant public reminders and memorials that often delayed personal and family mourning.

The second year was intensely painful for parents, as the numbness of the first year lifted, and they profoundly experienced the permanence of the loss and its effect on their daily existence. Children felt robbed of a year of their lives and invested themselves in much-needed work to catch up in school, with sports and with friends.”

The third year, according to Christ, was one of reconstitution. “Many mothers are beginning to establish a new identity,” she said, “and re-ordering relationships with family and old and new friends. While children and adolescents have regained previous capacities in many areas, they have also developed greater compassion, generosity and sensitivity to other people’s needs. Children are moving toward a more satisfying relationship with the surviving parent, and with the parent who died.”

Nonetheless, said Christ, there have been intense responses by children and adolescents to reminders during this third year. She has been particularly gratified when counselors have helped parents understand what might be contributing to their child’s distress and provided the support that is needed.

Children younger than 5 on 9/11 are now struggling to understand exactly what happened and how and why it occurred. One boy demanded, “If Dad died when the building came down, let’s build it up and take him out.”

The program will continue for the next two years. “The idea is to empower families to find the best ways to handle their grief and its impact on the family,” Christ said. “The families feel gratified to partake-they know that what we are all learning may help other families in the future who, unfortunately, might experience similar losses.”