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In the Loss of Young Lives Far Too Soon, The World Is Gripped by a Special Grief

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page C01

In photographs, the children have dark, messy hair and they are draped in blankets. Their infant arms and legs are soft or -- if they are older -- long and spindly. Too weak to hold on.

The waters rushed in and the waters retreated and at least a third of the bodies left behind were those of children.

In one picture from India, a father carries his son. The son's head flops, the grave worker's arms extend like the arms of Hades to take the child to the underworld. There is no morality in nature; if there were, a parent would never have to cradle his dead child.

"When you lose your own blood, it is truly like you're losing your own future," says Wayne Loder of Milford, Mich., who lost his 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son when a motorcyclist smashed into his wife's car in 1991. You assume he doesn't want to talk about this, but he loves talking about Stephanie and Stephen. He is scared they will be forgotten.

Now, on the other side of the world, there are thousands of children being buried in mass graves, or starving and vulnerable to disease from dirty water and dead bodies. It is on a scale too big to imagine, so you think about it small, think about what it does to parents when their future is gone.

In Hiroshima, says Harvard psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who studied survivors there, "those who remained most devastated by the experience were people whose children were killed."

It was irrational, Lifton says, but many of those parents felt responsible for their children's deaths. It was their duty to shepherd their own flesh to adulthood. They failed.

The death of children seems unfair. We talk about dead kids as never having had a chance, a fair shot at life. Their passing seems to violate "the laws of nature" and "the sequence of generations," as Lifton puts it. They seem more innocent than the rest of us, even when the culprit is natural disaster, for which no one human is more responsible than another. Newspapers give two numbers: the number killed and the number of children killed, as if they are separate populations. The Beslan school hostage crisis in Russia: more than 170 children. The Oklahoma City bombing: 19. Columbine: 12.

In the Bible, there are 10 plagues that God visits on the Egyptians for enslaving his chosen people, and the one that God saves for last? The death of the firstborn sons. That is a unique devastation, the future of a community.

In many of the cultures affected by Sunday's tsunami, children are not only the future but also the present. They not only are likely to provide for parents in their old age but also are working and contributing to their families now, says Paul C. Rosenblatt, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. In impoverished countries, even the money or food provided by a 7-year-old can help a family survive.

Part of the reason so many of the tsunami's dead are children has to do with demographics. In most of the 12 countries affected, 30 to 50 percent of the population is younger than 18, according UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. The agency also cites eyewitness accounts indicating that children had trouble holding onto trees and other stable objects that might have kept them from being swept away. What of the parents who were able to save some of their children at the expense of others? What of the parents who were unable to save any? What of the parents who still don't know?

They will try to make sense of what happened. They will find it in religion or in logistics -- where their house was built. Some may find meaning in helping others, assuming they have anything left to give after the flood.

Wayne Loder, who is public awareness coordinator for the Compassionate Friends, a network of support groups for bereaved parents, had two more children after his first two died. They are 11 and 12 now, older than Stephanie and Stephen ever got to be.

After the Holocaust, says Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, many survivors had more children, "even though new people don't make up for lost ones." There is a kind of defiance to this, a biologically hard-wired optimism -- bringing children into a destructive world.

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