When tragedy hits (really) close to home

I’ve written before about my attempts to engender a sense of social responsibility in my daughters. We donate bags of food and clothes, as well as tzedakah money, to our local food bank, and they’ve helped distribute bags throughout the neighborhood for the annual “Stamp out Hunger” food drive. We’ve talked about poverty and homelessness as pressing, and very local, issues, but at the same time I’ve always reassured them that papa and I have  good (enough) jobs, and that we have lots of friends and family who would help us out if we were ever in trouble. I don’t think talking about those in need has ever caused them to worry about having a roof over their heads or food to eat, and I consider that a good thing.
A few days ago, our small community was hit with a tragic wave of arson – nine or more fires were set in a neighborhood a stone’s throw from ours (pretty much all neighborhoods here are a stone’s throw from each other….) – 2 people were killed, and several families lost their homes. One of those families is part of the Jewish community, and I taught with the mom at the Hebrew school last year.
I’ve been riveted to my computer, trying to find any information I can about what I can do to help. I’ve gathered up a bag of clothes for my former colleague, who wears about the same size as I do, and am awaiting more lists of what is needed. The community is working impressively hard to gather and disseminate information about how we can help one another.
I’m torn about whether or not to share any of this with my daughters. On the one hand, I want them to see how people reach out and band together when a neighbor (or entire neighborhood) is hurting. I want them to see that their parents are a part (albeit a very tiny part) of this effort. I want to do all I can to make sure this kind of response becomes second nature to them as they grow up. At the same time, I don’t want to scare the crap out of them. Because of course, this could happen to them. That is, to us. And because we’re all a little on edge around here, I’m not prepared to field their possible questions with the breezy confidence I feign in the face of queries about other, less imminent, threats.
So far, I’ve mentioned that someone we know had a house fire. I added quickly that no one was hurt – and exclaimed something really stupid and cheerful like “It’s so great that we all have smoke detectors!”
A little later in the day, Ella caught me alone in the kitchen. “You know that fire that happened to your friend?” she asked quietly. “How did it happen?”
I thought for a moment about what to say. “I don’t know,” I lied.
But on second thought, I have no fucking idea how something like this could happen, so I guess I wasn’t lying after all.

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posted December 28, 2009 at 9:13 pm

oy vey. hope your friend is doing okay. i think it’s alright to wait a little before you figure out what to tell them. especially since it sounds like ella could be catching on to the idea of fear of this stuff.
hang in there.

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the Rebbetzin

posted December 28, 2009 at 9:32 pm

WTF? that’s awful. sounds like you handled it well. Good God. Praying for your friend and the whole town. Geez.

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posted December 28, 2009 at 9:40 pm

thank you for sharing, I can sense your outrage at this traumatic invasion on our peaceful hometown.

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posted December 28, 2009 at 10:33 pm

I read about this in the paper and immediately thought of you and your family. Trust in your ability to find the right words to answer your daughters’ questions as they occur. You’ll find them as you need them.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 9:30 am

Is there a coordinated effort for help yet? Let me know so that I could send something ($). Thinking of everyone – hang in there.

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posted December 29, 2009 at 9:35 am

You can donate to the Pioneer Valley Red Cross and specify “Northampton Fires”. The shul is collecting clothes, but I don’t think they are set up for distributing money. Also, there will be info here soon:

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Morah Mary

posted December 30, 2009 at 8:31 am

I’ve thought about your post a lot and it seems to me that perhaps Ella is actually asking two questions: the surface one (“What happened?”) and a deeper one (“Will I be safe if something like that happens to us?”)
I don’t remember how old she is, but it seems like your “I don’t know” can be a perfectly valid response immediately for the explicit question. Should you decide to share more information at some point in the future, you haven’t closed the door for that opportunity.
To answer her implicit question, it might be worth exploring with her how your whole family would respond if a fire happened in your house.
Like many families, we had an escape plan we shared with our kids, but we never PRACTICED it. We never walked through touching their bedroom doors to see if they were hot; we never had them try and climb out their bedroom windows; we never practiced meeting at our designated gathering place. We TALKED about it, but we never DID it.
We never needed to – we were lucky. But knowing now what I know about kids and how they learn (by doing), I would have held practice drills on a regular basis, so that the movements became fluid and automatic.
One final suggestion, if I might: allow yourself to grieve. Your friend has lost her home and her possessions, YOU have lost a sense of security and trust. Both are significant.
Take care of yourself.

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arnie draiman

posted December 30, 2009 at 1:44 pm

forgot how old your daughters are, but at any age, you don’t have to tell them WHY ‘x’ is in need (if they are too young and might get scared), but rather just tell them that ‘x’ is in need and it is your tzedakah responsibility to help out….
arnie draiman

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posted December 30, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Oh jeez. I’ve found lately that the toddler is much more well-equipped to handle scary things than I thought, so long as I know where I stand on something. And your kids are probably hearing things from friends, and are doing a lot of reading your expressions, so more info might be more reassuring.

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