November 17, 2019
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    Bearing the unbearable

    May 21, 2019

    The little house, much like the rest of Sri Lanka, could hold no more grief. All day, amid the scorching heat, mourners stepped in and out of the entrance, pausing before the sealed coffin which contained what was left of a little girl. Barely in her teens, the innocent young lass had been blown apart at Easter Mass on Sunday, April 21, 2019 – a date that would be etched in many Sri Lankans’ hearts for years to come. The scenes were straight out of hell. Some hid their eyes from the horrors while others collapsed in tears. They were eyewitnesses and survivors of the brutal Easter massacre which claimed the lives of more than 350 people. Families on holiday, newlyweds, professionals, labourers, students, grandparents, infants, foreigners… no one had been spared.

    It may have been an abrupt ending for the dead but for the bomb attack survivors, it is long days consumed by endless grief and fear. Gruesome images of battered faces and bodies missing limbs haunt their thoughts. Sleep does not come easily because the haunting images of badly mutilated bodies emerge out of the darkness. Their minds are made to relive the shock, confusion and horrors of the incident over and over again.

    As days passed the memory of the attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka have dimmed in the minds of the public. They have been spared from witnessing the core horror of these incidents on the spot. But for those who have been eyewitnesses and survivors of the bomb attack, it is an entirely different story. They are made to battle with their daemons daily.

    Though we are unable to turn back time and change the outcome, little gestures like listening attentively to their stories of distress, acknowledging their feelings and empathizing with them mean a lot to them as they are still struggling every day to lead a normal life.

    Grief-stricken people

    “These are distressing times for everyone in the country. Though we have faced so many disasters it is still unclear why this incident took place. Everyone was taken by shock by the brutality of these bombings. Sri Lanka Sumithrayo has been working with grief-stricken people who have even been contemplating suicide for many years. We provide confidential emotional support for those who are suffering from feelings of distress and despair by listening to them and befriending them,” Sri Lanka Sumithrayo Chairperson Kumudini de Silva said.

    She says that it is not only those who have witnessed the incident first hand who have been badly affected. Those who have seen the horrific scenes on social media or have read about the details on newspapers too have experienced trauma.

    “We launched a programme on May 15 to help all the people who have been traumatized by the bombings. We visited Katuwapitiya for the first session of this programme. We offered our services to them and Father Claude Nonis, who is in charge of the Katuwapitiya church-run operations welcomed us to join hands with them. The church’s charity arm has launched counselling services and lodgings for survivors and bereaved families,” she explained.

    The bombings are an abnormal incident for which the people react normally. Grief due to losing your loved ones, fear, anger which may be directed at the church and its beliefs, survivor guilt due to being the one who had lived to tell the tale are some of the feelings that they experience as an aftermath of the incident.

    “The survivors relive the incident through intrusive memories and intrusive flashbacks. They even dream of the event when they fall asleep. Some of them display avoidance behaviour patterns by keeping away from items that remind them of the trauma. Some might refrain from visiting the church while others may avoid praying. They experience hyperarousal due to their nervous system being in an alert state. This leads to issues like sleep disturbances and startling reactions. A bomb attack survivor might hear the noise emitted by something like a firecracker like the sound of a bomb explosion,” Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer to the University Hospital, General Sir John Kothalawela Defense University, Dr. Neil Fernando said.

    Counselling training programme

    Dr. Fernando has been training Sri Lanka Sumithrayo volunteers through regular counselling training sessions for the past few years. He had held a special counselling training programme aimed at the Easter bomb attack survivors recently.

    He stressed that it is important not to medicalize or psychologize these behaviours. Their reactions are normal and will gradually pass off as time heals the wounds. The social, cultural and religious rituals practised in Sri Lanka are psychological friendly and help the survivors to overcome the incident.

    “We need to empower their inbuilt resilience. Community support is needed to set the survivors on a path in which they can get back into the normal daily lifestyle that they had led before the incident took place. For example, children need to be sent to school to allow them to return to their normal lifestyle. Such tactics help rather than instilling forceful medication methods like getting them to take sleeping tablets or antidepressants,” he added.

    Children, adolescents, people who have lost several members in their family, those who have undergone a near-death experience, the elderly, those who suffer from physical drawbacks and those who have been mentally ill before, fall into the vulnerable group who may be at high risk of being over traumatized.

    “Katuwapitiya church’s charity arm is currently assessing the situation to note who really need help. It takes about a month for them to judge if a person needs long term medical support. At the moment the emotions that the bomb attack survivors are going through are normal. However if these feelings tend to persist, then that means that they need to be tended to. A psychiatrist from Ragama Hospital is currently instructing everyone there and the fathers are engaged in psychosocial and spiritual counselling. We too will be working with them on a regular basis,” de Silva said.Time is the best healer. Not even a month has passed since the fateful incident but people are gradually opening up and sharing their grief-stricken experiences.

    “Sadly, two suicide cases have been reported after the incident. They had been the only survivors in the family and they had felt that there is no point continuing their lives without their loved ones. The survivors usually blame themselves for not being able to save their kin. Acceptance is difficult for them. You need to be very sensitive to these people and be calm, clear and simple in what you say. You need not say a lot. You just need to listen to their feelings with an open heart. Otherwise, you might end up doing more harm than good,” she expressed. Queried if it is solely the bomb attack survivors that they focus on and de Silva said that the matter is under discussion.

    “Some of our volunteers who visited the areas felt that even the other communities need support because they too are living in fear and despair. They too felt that their normal lifestyles have been disrupted due to this incident. Though they may seem quiet and calm on the outside, people have become extremely suspicious of each other. They also have a lot of anger bottled up. We need to help them get rid of such feelings. One's culture, traditions and religious beliefs are very sensitive topics so we need to tread with care. The media too has an important role to play in aiding these people to discard such feelings,” she opined.

    Sri Lanka Sumithrayo has offered their services to Kochchikade as well and is hoping to visit the area in the coming days.

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