Coping with Grief and Gaining Empathy Through Story and the Lens of History

            Almost unfathomably, this September 11th marks a staggering 20 years since many of us watched in horror as the iconic twin towers fell, and our nation was under attack. 

            As many adults still work to process the shock and trauma of that day, students not yet born in 2001, grow ever more removed from the event, lacking understanding, even as they weather devastating shared traumas of their own: Mass shootings and gun drills, political unrest, and, yes, a pandemic, and the impact of the isolation of quarantine.

            How do we teach children to cope with such overwhelming trauma, gaining empathy and even hope through the lens of history?
            One of the answers is, and has always been, story.

            It is well documented[1] that story – especially via literary fiction — builds empathy and understanding better than text or nonfiction ever could. Stepping into story, and the metaphorical shoes of children their own age, to “witness” that tragic day and the days after, to feel with their own hearts how we rose from grief as a nation — as well as changed in both good and bad ways — is one of the most instructive ways for children today to learn to cope with their ongoing grief.

            For the past five years since we wrote our fictional accounts of children and young adults persevering through the trauma of nine eleven, we have visited many schools and met countless readers, ages 9 – 18, who have shared how these stories have changed their perceptions and helped them to understand. Readers have voiced not only a new understanding of the actual timeline of events that day, but of how important research and source and fact checking are, or how sweeping changes in technology, security and privacy took place, or how the scourge of Islamophobia took a real and dangerous foothold in our country in the aftermath.

            As one student recently admitted, “I learned how horrible it was. I used to think it wasn’t that big of a deal, but now I understand.”

            Comprehending the value, and necessity, of teaching 9/11, departments of education around the country, including New York,[2] New Jersey[3], and Virginia[4] have developed 9/11 curriculum, often pairing it with Holocaust teachings. Both those traumatic events in our shared history are often associated with the easy catchphrase “Never forget.” And yet, we’ve begun to.[5] And must not.


            To learn more about our books and how to bring our stories to your classrooms,

there three of us put together this brief video:

And you can always reach us:




Nerdy essay penned by Gae Polisner.

[1] Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy, PJ Manney, ; Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy




[5]; Many Young Americans Don’t Know Key Facts About the Holocaust. Now Is the Time to Fix the Way We Teach This History in the U.S.