In This Issue

Earthquake Relief in Brooklyn

Ten days after the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010 Elsa First and Michele Bartnett met with a group of Haitian employees at a Brooklyn, New York hospital. First and Bartnett describe their work in group sessions with the grieving and overwhelmed immigrants.

By Elsa First, MA, and Michèle Bartnet, PhD

Ten days after the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010 we met with a group of Haitian employees at a Brooklyn hospital at the request of the hospital director. By mutual agreement we held four meetings, each session lasting an hour and three quarters. We met first on January 22, then at two to four week intervals, ending after Easter. Our group averaged 16 attendees (14 women and two men). Some dropped in when they could while others attended regularly as their shifts and responsibilities allowed. They represented a heterogeneous selection of hospital workers -- practical nurses, nurses in critical care, cardiology, respiratory medicine, and geriatrics; hospital orderlies, security staff; and social workers. Most of them knew only a few others in the group, yet they showed remarkable solidarity, warmth and helpfulness to each other from the start.

Perhaps the most positive effect of these groups was to communicate the concern that the hospital administration felt for the plight of the Haitian emigrants on their staff. The fact that we were prepared to travel from Manhattan to run the meetings also showed our respect and concern for the group.

At the first meeting, the group consisted of members who had been in touch with relatives and others who still did not know the fate of relatives in Haiti. For those who had managed to be in phone contact with their families, some had lost their homes while others had learned of the death of one to multiple family members. One by one, they shared their own shock and disbelief, their identification with the sufferers, anguish at not being able to offer immediate help by being in Haiti, and distress over their own helplessness.

One member, Marcelle, became a focus of intense concern because she appeared nearly catatonic with shock at having recently learned of the loss of her brother and seven nieces and nephews. About an hour into the group, she slowly began to speak and said that her medical doctor had told her it was better not to talk about the earthquake so as to forget what happened. Members of the group soundly voiced their disagreement with her doctor’s advice, encouraged her to speak, and were able to provide her with the support she needed. Members who had not been able to contact family in Haiti were grappling with the dilemma of ambiguous grief.

In each meeting, the discussion revolved around reports about the current state of survivors. The themes presented evocative metaphors for the group’s own states of mind and the struggle to process shock and grief. At the same time, some members were trying to understand why this had happened to them. Was God punishing them for something they had done? Each time questions such as these emerged, the group was quick to offer support and reassure members that the tragedy had nothing to do with them. Perhaps as a defense against the guilt they were feeling for not being able to do more, feelings of resentment and anger emerged. These feelings were projected onto the inadequate rescue efforts and longstanding government corruption. When such scapegoating and suspicion did appear, it could also be dismissed and replaced with heartfelt expressions of cultural loyalty, solidarity, gratitude for help given, and a return to the recent experiences of the group members, which allowed them some agency in listening to and supporting each other.

Over several meetings the group helped one another reconcile to the fact that the best they could do was to remain in the United States earning “good money,” which they wired to relatives in Haiti when it was possible for family members to receive it. During the final session, the emergent theme was concern about loved ones not wanting to leave their destroyed homes. Stories were told of relatives in Haiti who were camping out in the ruins of their collapsed houses, several in Port au Prince. These survivors had the opportunity to move back to their “country,” as people called the village they came from, or to other relatives’ villages. When their relations in New York City urged them to go where they could get shelter and care, they refused to leave. Instead, they insisted that they wanted to stay in their places, where they belonged, even if their homes were demolished. They would wait for it to be rebuilt, although there was no sign of when rebuilding would begin or reach them. They were afraid that if they left their plots of land others would come and take them away for there was no longer a way to prove their ownership. No one had papers any more. These “stubborn” ones in Haiti were insisting on their right to camp out on the sites of their grief, keeping their identities linked with what happened along with the evidence of their losses. The group saw the “stubborn” ones as exasperating, but defended them understanding the deep protest and just expression of resistance and steadfastness in their “ignorant” behavior.

By the last session, some had plans in place to visit Haiti soon and they spoke of trying to prepare themselves to face the devastation and of fears for their own safety. Others could not visit because there was, as yet, no place to stay. Despite all our preparation, the group claimed to be surprised that this was our last session. We reviewed where they had been and the changes they had made. Marcelle proudly announced how grateful she was to friends who encouraged her to come to the group and how much it had made a difference for her. Others let themselves share very poignant personal material again. They shared tales of who survived and who didn’t along with images of narrow escapes by several children but also of children left behind. Now the group was suffused with their present grief, and we felt they were doing what we had come to facilitate, the group was containing its members’ pain. They reported that in Haiti now, in the absence of needed shelter and mental health providers, people were comforting each other much like they were doing together. A last word was offered by a social worker attending for the first time. She said that when rebuilding was started there would be many more dead discovered in the ruins. “As bodies are found there will be fresh grieving, so the grieving is not over. There will be more to come.” She had, we thought, intuited what the group needed to hear, permission to move on at their own pace.

- Elsa First, MA
- Michèle Bartnett, PhD