Saturday, January 23, 2010

You Don't Have to Live in Haiti to be Traumatized

Today's New York Times has a really nice article about a Catholic school in Queens, New York.  The vast majority of the children at the school are from Haitian and Haitian-American families.  Large numbers of them have lost relatives in the earthquake.  Others haven't been able to find out what happened to their families.  Many of them spend summers in Haiti, one was living there during the earthquake and another's father was killed.  All of them feel a close connection to Haiti, even if they were born here.

It would be a fairly straightforward assumption that children who were in the earthquake are traumatized, those who had relatives die are less so, and those who did not lose a loved one are not traumatized at all.  This article makes it clear that the situation is not that simple.  First of all, there are few if any Haitian-American children did not lose a relative or other loved one in the quake.  It also makes clear that all of them are trying very hard to understand what happened and figure out what it means for them.

The picture at the beginning of the article is of a girl at SS. Joachim and Anne drawing a picture with the dictated words, "I want to build homes for the people in Haiti."  The picture is of a house with three people in it.  One of them is clearly dead.  The story talks about a boy who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, and was worried for the safety of friends and family in New York, because the earthquake was so big he thought it must be shaking New York as well.  As much as the adults can barely understand the enormity of what happened, these kids have that much less of a framework into which to fit this event.  They are trying to make sense of it the best they can.

Perhaps most heart-wrenching, in some sense, are the stories about the older children.  The middle schoolers are old enough to really understand the destruction and to have expectations about how adults will act in moments of crisis.  In many cases, they are one step more removed from the situation than their parents, who are severely impacted.  This leaves them in the difficult position of trying to comfort and reassure their own parents, and of being impacted not only by the earthquake itself but by their parents' reactions to it.

So, what is a school to do?  It sounds like SS. Joachim and Anne is doing a lot of great stuff.  They have counselors working with the kids.  The children are drawing, which is very important because kids can often express in drawings much more complex thoughts and emotions than they can just talking.  They are using developmentally appropriate lessons to teach the children the science behind earthquakes, which aside from being a useful curricular tie-in also gives the kids an understanding of how this happened and real information about how likely something like it is to happen again -- in Haiti or in New York.  They are coming up with constructive ways to help.  As a religious institution, the school is also talking to the children about God's role in protecting and comforting them and their parents.

There are things the article doesn't mention that probably would help.  I have no way of knowing whether these are things the school is doing that just weren't mentioned or whether they're not being done, so this is more of an intellectual exercise for the benefit of Quarterbackers than anything else.

First off, folks need to be careful in balancing how they talk about God in this situation.  It is fine and appropriate to share the church's theology on these questions and to encourage the religious practice that is appropriate in that context.  However, adults, in an effort to comfort children, sometimes wind up saying things about God that even they don't believe, or which are confusing in their simplicity to children.  Saying, "God will protect you," for example, might sound good, but for kids who have seen their families destroyed it is confusing to hear this and know that somehow their families were not protected.  Telling kids to pray for those affected is fine, similarly, as long as there is room for them to also talk about it and express their feelings.  Our simple reassurances shouldn't be the end of the conversation.

I also hope someone -- in the school, the church or the community -- is helping those older kids understand their parents' anguish.  I hope someone is telling them that it is not and cannot be their job to keep their parents from falling apart.  Someone older and more detached needs to take that burden off of the children.  Seeing your parents that upset is hard enough without feeling responsible for it.  There needs to be a third party helping mediate that.

Mostly, I hope there is lots of opportunity for these kids to visit and revisit their feelings and their understanding of what happened.  That girl in the picture needs to draw a lot more, and she needs the chance to tell someone about her picture.  Who is that who died?  What happened to them?  What will happen to them next?  What will the two people who are alive do?  And perhaps the most poignant question of all, where do you see yourself in this picture?


Nance said...

Thank you for this excellent post, informing us and reminding us of the experience that Haitian-American children may be having. As a retired psychotherapist who often worked with children, I entirely endorse your recommendations about avoiding theological oversimplifications when working with kids; your position might not win you any prizes among Evangelicals, but it's good psychology and needed to be said.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
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