Challenger Explosion Was Country's First Endeavor in Comforting Grieving Children

The death of a teacher, shown on live television, left children scared and confused.

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Debris falls from the sky after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 28, 1986.

On this date in 1986, millions of children in schools across the nation took a break from learning their ABCs to watch the space shuttle takeoff. It was supposed to be a moment of joy, but it quickly turned into one of the defining tragedies of the decade.

A week later, U.S. News & World Report ran half a dozen articles about the tragedy, including one describing the explosion of the shuttle on live television as "the first ever national trauma on children," noting in particular the loss of a teacher and the effect that could have on the nation's youth.

Following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 students were killed along with six school employees, America was having similar conversations about how to shield children from tragedy and help them cope with grief.

President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable speech following the tragedy in which he spoke directly to those children who had witnessed the horror:

"I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen," he said. "It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them." He concluded: "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God."

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 1986, issue of U.S. News & World Report.

A Lesson in Grief

for the Young By Steve Huntley with Lucia Solorzano,

Ron Scherer, and Dan Collins Exploding spaceships, once the stuff of "Star Wars" movies to thrill young imaginations, now trigger childhood nightmares of death.

Cheers turned to tears in classrooms across the country as millions of students riveted to TV sets watched the shuttle explosion kill a familiar figure from their own lives, a teacher, and inflict what some see as the first ever national trauma on children.

In the aftermath, psychologists and others skilled in helping people deal with trauma and grief noted the signs parents should watch for in children.

Some youngsters suffer lingering nightmares. Damon Vasilkioti, 12, of Mamaroneck, N.Y., had a dream putting him aboard the shuttle when it blew up. "Wow! It felt so real," Damon recalls. The very young may become afraid to sleep alone.

Youngsters may have "magical explanations" for the tragedy, says Yale child psychiatrist James Comer. "They may associate what happened with their own dangerous wishes and fears."

A heightened concern for the well-being of parents is another symptom of trauma. "Children may be very clingy and reluctant to have their parents leave," observes Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

To help children understand the tragedy, especially those under 11 years old, psychologists give this advice to parents—

  • Take plenty of time to discuss the accident, offer rational explanations and tell children their thoughts had nothing to do with the disaster.
  • Emphasize the many successes of the space program and the uniqueness of the mechanical failure.
  • Make it clear that any airline "shuttle" they might take to Boston, New York or Washington is a much less complicated vehicle than the spaceship.
  • In many of the nation's schools, teachers are setting aside classroom time for children to air their feelings. "They have a ton of questions," says Luanne Kittle, a teacher at Marymount Junior School in Arlington, Va.

    Some school personnel are putting to use the skills they learned when they had to explain the 1981 shooting of President Reagan. Washington-area teacher David Zahren tells pupils that their feelings mirror his as a boy when President Kennedy was killed: "I told them how scared I was and how I wanted to know that the world would be all right and that everything did turn out O.K."

    The Concord, N.H., school where Christa McAuliffe taught provides psychological counseling for any student who wants it. The school system "will do its darnedest to exact as little pain as possible from the students," says Superintendent Mark Beauvais.

    Some experts minimize the effects on youngsters. Children will learn that life goes on, says Robert Coles, Harvard child psychiatrist and author of The Moral Life of Children. "They are often stronger and tougher than we give them credit for being."

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the time being went ahead with its Space Ambassador project, using 104 teachers who were semifinalists in the teacher-in-space program to visit classrooms and discuss space careers with students.

    A day after the Challenger disaster, one of the ambassadors—David Zahren—was in the West Friendship Elementary School in Howard County, Md. "I tried to keep a fine balance between being a parent and a counselor and still being enthusiastic about the program," he recalls.

    Finally, when his talk was completed, Zahren asked students how many would like to go into space. "Every hand went up."

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