Grieving in Haiti

My translator Ronald had the morning off yesterday. He had to bury his brother.

The brother, John, was 36—five years older, Ronald explained quietly. John had been standing at the wrong place at the wrong time on Jan 12th. He had just finished his work as an information technology specialist at a community hospital and was waiting for a taxi in central Port au Prince when the quake struck. A building collapsed next to him and he was crushed.

Funerals have been a common site around Port au Prince over the past two weeks and the ceremony Ronald described had many of the usual Christian rituals—a church service with friends and relatives followed by the mourners slow walk behind a hearse carrying the casket to a cemetery about a mile away. The tradition of returning to the family home for food and drink wasn’t possible because there was no home to return to. Like John, it too, was gone.

The accumulation of events had taken such an emotional toll on Ronald’s mother, the family had decided to send her to back to the ancestral home in Jereme, a smaller city about 100 miles southwest of the capital that was relatively untouched by the earthquake.

Despite their loss, Ronald and his family were fortunate in one respect: they know John’s fate and were able to give him a respectful burial. They had the luxury of saying good bye. Two of John’s work colleagues had seen him go under the rubble, dug him out and carried his body to the central morgue, where Ronald and other family members came face to face with the reality of John’s death.

Many loved ones among the estimated 112,000 Haitians who died in the disaster still have no idea where the bodies of their relatives are. They have no certainty they are even dead. In a culture where ancestor worship is common and maintaining ties with their spirits is a sacred obligation, the ability to retrieve the remains of a loved one and give them a proper burial is no small thing.

In the days following the earthquake thousands of bodies were removed from the streets and other public places, then buried in large mass graves with little or no way for relatives to trace them. Three weeks after the disaster, relatives continue to search. It’s a painful process.

“The problem with a missing body is, should you grieve or not,” noted Lynne Jones, a specialist on disaster psychiatry for International Medical Corps. “You don’t want to accept the death of a loved one, but if you don’t accept it, you can’t grieve, mourn and move on.”

The traditional support network of friends and relatives who usually gather to help a family that has suffered a death is also broken because so many have lost so much, there is no one to do the consoling. Such conditions increase the chances of psychosocial and mental health problems such as depression, said Jones, and that could complicate recovery.

She noted that in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami which swept vast numbers out to sea and leveled large swaths of the Indonesian island of Aceh, International Medical Corps built so-called quiet houses near mass graves at the request of the local population to allow people to mourn those lost in peace and dignity.

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