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helping kids through grief

Mom Talk: I Lost My Dad on 9/11, Now I’m Helping Kids Through Grief

Written by Katie Pereira

Photography by Family Photos Courtesy of Katie Pereira

It seems unbelievable that the devastation of 9/11 rocked the world over 20 years ago. But for the victims’ families, the loss is still palpable every day. Katie Pereira, now a mother of two herself, was only 7-years-old when her beloved father was killed in the horrific terrorist attack at the World Trade Center. Below, she shares her own story of loss and how she’s now helping kids through grief as a staffer at the same bereavement camp for kids that she once attended as a child.

“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” –Virgil

These are the words mounted at what used to be Ground Zero of Towers 1 & 2 of the World Trade Center in New York. Two majestic twin towers that I had spent a lot of time at with my dad. 

My name is Katie, and my dad, Franco Lalama, was one of the 2,996 people who were killed in the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. I was 7-years-old and my perfect little world was crushed. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other and knew where my dad worked. My dad was an engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. His office was on the 64th floor of the north tower. He was last seen on the 22nd floor before the tower collapsed.

I remember my mom telling me my dad died, but not right away. I don’t remember how much time passed after the events began to unfold in front of the entire world before she told me, but I understand why she didn’t tell me so quickly. How can a mom tell their child that their dad died and was not going to come home? How do you find the words to explain to a little girl whose daddy was her hero that she will never see him again? I didn’t understand why this happened to me and I struggled with my emotions. I didn’t know how to cope with my dad dying and was confused at what my life would look like without my dad, so I expressed those frustrations with anger. I felt like I was robbed of time with him and was wishing that I would be able to have one more day with him. 

I noticed quickly that my peers started to treat me differently. I felt like a fish in a fishbowl, being watched all the time. My emotions were all over the place and it made it hard to be able to navigate life. I didn’t understand that it’s okay to not be okay, but it was also okay to be okay. People often expect you to either be sad all the time or move on and get over it. Grief does not have a timeline, it is a journey. It changes as the years go on. The way I grieved my dad’s death when I was a child is different now. 

comfort zone camp

My mom found Comfort Zone Camp, the first-ever national nonprofit bereavement camp, shortly after my dad died. The first camp program being held in New Jersey was November of 2001, just two months after 9/11. I don’t remember if I was nervous before I went or if I was excited, but what I remember most was not wanting to leave camp. I finally had a place that I could go to where I wasn’t alone. The feeling of being different was completely gone because I had other children to relate to. What is truly remarkable about Comfort Zone Camp is the turbo bonding that you experience with everyone there. You come into camp not knowing anyone and by the end of the camp program you made deep connections and bonds with your group. Camp was the something good that came from something bad and I am so grateful and thankful for it. 

Comfort Zone Camp is a nonprofit organization that provides a fun and safe place for grieving children. It is free of cost for all campers. The camp program is a 3-day overnight weekend camp experience for children ages 7-17 (18 if still in high school) who experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver. This camp truly transforms the lives of grieving children. My journey with Comfort Zone has come full circle since my first camp in 2001. Comfort Zone was the place for me. It was everything I needed to be able to cope with my loss.

I attended camp every year as a camper until I started to volunteer as a junior counselor at 15 and then a Big Buddy at 18. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to volunteer. I wanted to give back to the place that gave me my life back. I knew after years of being at camp I wanted to grow up and help people. I began working for a nonprofit organization after college and never looked back. I wanted to change lives and always hoped that one day I could work for Comfort Zone Camp. That dream came true. I have been working on staff at Comfort Zone Camp now for almost three years as Regional Camp Manager and I love every second of it.

But, what I love most is that I am making a difference in a grieving child’s life, and that they are just like me. Helping them understand that even though right now your loss is right in front of you and may be hard to see through it—one day you will come out on the other side of it, your loss still there, still grieving, but not letting it stop you from achieving what you want out of life.

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