It is a parent's worst nightmare. And for Dr. Stephen and Elizabeth Alderman, it came in the midst of what seemed like a dream. The Aldermans and their three kids, Jeffrey, 31, Jane, 28, and Peter, 25, as well as Jeffrey's wife Tobey, were vacationing in the Provence region of France in September to celebrate Stephen's 60th birthday. Peter, who worked in the financial-services division of Bloomberg L.P., returned to the U.S. on Sept. 8 to prepare for a conference that was being held at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor of 1 World Trade Center. The conference was on Sept. 11.
"We knew right away that there was no hope for him," says Elizabeth. Their anguish was exacerbated by the fact that they could not get a flight home to Armonk, N.Y. (Michael Bloomberg sent his private jet for them.) "While we were in France, we decided that the best way to memorialize Peter was to do something for his friends," says his mother. So on Sept. 19, the Aldermans threw a party at their home, replete with champagne, kegs of beer and food, for 125 of Peter's friends from all chapters of his life. "Two kids drove 2 1/2 days from San Francisco. Someone came from Oregon. He had friends from kindergarten who came," says Elizabeth.
No one's grief can be presumed to be greater than anyone else's, but there is something special in a parent's loss of a child, with the wrenching reversal of nature's cycle of generations. Says Patricia Loder, executive director of the Compassionate Friends, an international organization for bereaved parents and siblings, with 600 chapters in the U.S.: "When you lose a grandparent, you lose part of your past. When you lose a spouse, you lose part of your present. But when you lose your child, you lose part of your future." Many of the more than 5,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were adults in their 20s, 30s or 40s, with young children and proud parents.
As they begin adjusting to their tragically new and different life, bereaved parents often feel isolated because their loss makes others so uncomfortable; people simply don't know how to respond. Dr. Robert Baugher, a death and grief specialist in Seattle, says, "It's so important for support people to be good listeners. That means you shut your mouth. Do not start a sentence that begins with 'At least,' as in 'At least he wasn't in pain' or 'At least he led a full life.' Your job when dealing with someone who's bereaved is to let that person be in pain."
Bereaved parents often say the best and most healing comfort is found in the presence of other bereaved parents. "I'm not sure I would have survived without the Compassionate Friends. I was fairly convinced I was going nuts," says Patrick Malone, 59, of Snellville, Ga. "I was sitting across the table from a man who started talking about what he experienced that first year, and it was like every thought I was having had gone through his head. I was so comforted. People there will listen to your story as many times as you need to tell it." Kathy and Patrick Malone's son Lance, 25, died in a motorcycle accident in 1995. One thing they both experienced is that at some undefinable moment, they were able to give support to others, to listen and comfort. "People always want to know which is the worst year," says Kathy. "I don't think there's an answer to that. Every year is different."