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Coping with the loss of 4 children

By Tom Davis

RIVER EDGE - The child's 6-year-old friend died in a Teaneck house fire. "Noah died. Noah died," the child kept saying in the kindergarten class.

The teacher, Aliza Fischman, didn't know what to do. She consulted David Pelcovitz, a noted professor of psychology and education at Yeshiva University.

Don't worry, Fischman was told. This was the child's way of coping.

"But it's also when they show strength," said Pelcovitz, appearing at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey on Tuesday night.

The school invited Pelcovitz to talk to parents and teachers Tuesday about the March 21 fire that killed four children and shook this tight-knit Jewish community.

Many were still coming to grips with a blaze that injured the children's mother, Philyss Seidenfeld; a nanny, Betty Mbaza; and two siblings, Aviva, 7, and 12-year-old Zahava, a sixth-grader at the school.

Pelcovitz's appearance also came a day before Zahava's planned return to the school. The child's teacher, Malka Ohayon, questioned whether she should mention the tragedy at all in her class.

She could, Pelcovitz said. But don't dwell on it.

"What we're looking for is some guidance on how we can deal with this," said Rabbi Harvey Horn, principal of Judaic studies at the school.

In his 90-minute talk, Pelcovitz discussed how the tragedy will affect not just Zahava but the morale of the 860-member student body. The school is preschool through eighth grade.

Pelcovitz said many will ask themselves: What will kids say to each other? How should they treat Zahava? What should they answer when somebody asks, "Why?"

Before an audience of 30 parents and teachers, Pelcovitz linked much of his advice to his work with children who survived deadly bombings in Israel and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The professor said he was a child psychologist at North Shore Hospital in New York when he was dealing with twin girls who lost their father in the Twin Towers.

"The two twins were sitting on the floor, next to their mother, and one twin asked their mother, 'Why does everybody hate twins so much?'" Pelcovitz said.

After he told the story, the audience moaned.

In terms of coping styles, Pelcovitz said, "one size doesn't fit all." Some choose to withdraw following a tragedy and keep quiet. Others feel the need to talk it out.

Parents should assist children based on what's best for them, he said.

"The key thing is, don't be judgmental and don't push," he said. "Find out what coping styles are best."

A child who chooses to withdraw, he said, may open up later. Parents and teachers should be prepared for the "why and how" questions that may spring up, he said.

"The reaction often comes in after things settle down," Pelcovitz said. "But it won't necessarily appear to be connected."

Fischman said her own daughter tends to react later rather than earlier.

"I'm just waiting for two or three weeks from now when all the questions come flooding out," she said.

Reproduced with permission of The Record of Hackensack, NJ.

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