Compassionate Responses


Sri Lanka Journal: June 2005

Sri Lanka Journal:
Entry Number 5

Listening to Grief

When trying to come up with a good description of the compassionate work we did in Sri Lanka, I had a difficult time finding a title. Our one parameter here was to speak with those who had relatives or friends die in the tsunami. After we returned, I found that we had conducted over 100 individual interviews which is a lot. I have finally decided that our action is one of active listening so I have called it “Listening to Grief”.

During my visit in March, I listened to a number of stories about the loss of parents, children, husbands, wives, grandparents. Each time I engaged in this, I received a description of the tsunami itself. Soon, I found that there were as many tsunamis as there were people to talk about it. It was like the old story of the blind men touching various parts of the elephant with one declaring it is a rope, the other a wall etc. There seemed to be many tsunamis and each story was very different.  June was no exception. Although we were very interested in the dynamics of personal loss and death of a loved one, the description of the tsunami itself was integral to the process.

Our first few days, we had Brian, our driver and translator from Colombo and two other men who worked in the camps. They were volunteers and spent only two days working with us. But these were crucial first days and they helped us learn a lot. At first, Betty, Katie and I would spread out and go to the temporary shelter of one family and talk separately each with a translator. We covered a large number this way. So, we did a lot of one on one work. At times it is hard to list the commonalities but some things became very apparent.

After those first few days we tried a very different format. We had only Brian to translate so we set up outside in chairs and had people come to us. We all listened and we all asked questions and offered comfort. This turned out to be very good. Others would stand by and listen and sometimes bring people to see us they thought should talk with us. Many times older children would linger and listen, their solemn faces expressing understanding and compassion for their friends and neighbors. When we were in Hambantota, there were so many who wanted to see us, we had to split up with a line of chairs opposite us and each of us listening to separate cases with the mosque leaders providing extra translation. The camp in Matara had a meeting the night after our first visit there and decided this was a wonderful thing we were offering which had not been offered before.

Many survivors were seriously injured in the tsunami. I met one man twenty years old named Irshad in the Muslim camp in Hambantota who had large blotches on his face and arms. He said that he had the same condition on much of his body. This was caused by the severity of the water with the debris and sand which literally scraped the skin off. He was in the hospital for two months. He was home alone caring for his sister’s four year old son. He rescued the boy but the wall of the house fell on them and the boy was killed. His sister insists she does not blame the brother for the death of her baby but he is convinced she does. The father brought both of them to talk with us.

A woman had severely injured her arm and others walked with limps. Since the water was so violent, masonry houses fell down. Often walls and other things fell on people. Many were knocked unconscious and later woke up lying on the shore in piles of debris.

We met a family which had lost their eight year old adopted daughter. When the tsunami struck, the son put the child on a wall; the wall fell and the child was lost. A friend found the body after two days. The other son went on to help others, rescued another baby and suffered cuts all over his body.

Another family lost a 26-day-old infant boy. The Mother and baby survived the first wave, but she could not hold on when the second wave came; the baby was washed away. The mother was badly cut and is still (as of June) bandaged and infected. Their other two little ones climbed trees; the father rescued his one and a half year old daughter. Their six year old held onto a tree until he was rescued. The father had worked in a hotel which was destroyed by the tsunami; therefore he has no means of livelihood. One of the mother’s sisters lost two children and was placed in a mental hospital for two months. She is still on medication and "goes mad" when she sees baby toys. Still another sister is depressed, forgetful and fearful. She is haunted by memories of the tsunami and any loud sound sends her into a panic.

A sad young woman spoke with Katie about losing her husband and two boys, one two and a half and one eleven. Her sister who brought this lady to speak with Katie hovered and joined in from time to time. Three members of the extended family were in the hospital for 3 days due to water in the lungs, including this woman. While she was in the hospital she learned of the deaths of her husband and two sons. Another family member identified them by their clothing as the bodies had become too disfigured to recognize them. It often took several days to find bodies.

Many people have lingering physical effects of having ingested water. The water was very dirty and smelled. I spoke with a woman who was pregnant at the time of the tsunami. Her husband was in the army but had come home the night of December 25th for the December 26th holiday. They heard noises and thought it was a fight but it was people yelling and running from the tsunami. The husband, wife and small boy were caught up in the wave. They lost the boy but found him again holding unto a tree. The baby was born on January 16, 2005. The father is back on duty in the army but they want to return to the place of their original house.

Betty and I interviewed a woman who came with her eight year old son. She had lost an eleven year old in the tsunami. Many people were able to rescue photographs of loved ones or had the government i.d. photos enlarged. This woman had no photo of her lost child except the one the police took before the boy was buried in a mass grave. She brought this photo with her to show us.

There were many stories of a family member being away from home and then returning to find the family dead in the tsunami. Lahiru Prasad, our photographer, whom I interviewed in February, was up north visiting an uncle. He had to take an inland bus route over to Colombo, up to Galle and to his family. He did not know if his family was alive. As it turned out, they lost their three and a half year old boy, Kravindu,  who was swept off the front step of their little house in the first wave. Lahiru saw the body and went to the mass grave when his brother was buried.

There were some remarkable stories such as the little girl known as the “Tsunami baby”. The little girl was about three months old at the time of the disaster. Another father was looking for any family in the hours after the tsunami. He was under a tree when he heard a little bird sound. He looked up and saw this little girl draped over the branch of the tree. It took two hours to locate the parents and they quickly brought this baby to a hospital in Matara. They were told she was dead. They then took her, without permission, to the hospital in Galle where she was treated for six days and then released. The child continues on medications and does not eat well six months later.

Many people were able to recover the bodies of their loved ones and have funerals and private burials. We were shown photographs of the bodies lying in funeral homes and of burials. Some family members are upset with the fact their loved ones are in mass graves. They are not allowed to put markers in these places and many people yearn for some sort of grave site where they can visit.

Complicating the plight of these people, besides the fact that many of them suffered severe injuries as well as losing their loved ones, is the fact they continue to live in the camps with no easy resolution in sight. Many are unemployed and the sheer boredom is a constant part of the scene. They have no money besides the dole which is given to get food. Although the shelter and sanitation in the camps is not horrendous, the tedium and uncertainly of day to day life is deadening.

In general, we found that “listening to grief” was a powerful thing to do. Many times these sometimes stoic people cried openly - men and women. A few times we asked them to tell a story about the person who died or to recall a special day. Sometimes, telling this story elicited a smile. Almost always, we were profusely thanked and often invited back into tents to see photographs of those who had died.

We tried to be faithful to our own emotional needs and also not to be driving on the coastal road at night. So, we decided to return to a camp the next day if we did not finish and headed back to our hotel by five p.m. This gave us time for rest and discussion over the evening meal. We were rarely up beyond 9 p.m.

Photo Gallery

June 2005 Journal Entries
Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5