Red Bird Center

Bereavement and Loss Counseling

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Listening to hurricane victims with compassion

By AARON HOWARD


Jewish Herald Voice 2005


Here's a Hurricane Katrina story: A woman from rural Louisiana has an 11-year-old daughter with congenital heart disease. After a long period, she obtains an appointment at Tulane University Hospital in New Orleans for a cardiac surgical procedure. Mom takes her daughter to the hospital on Thursday, Sept. 1. Surgery is Friday. The hurricane hits Sunday. Mom thinks the city has dodged the big one until she sees the water rising in the street outside her child's hospital room window. The power goes out. The hospital backup generator kicks in briefly but then that, too, goes out. Food and water supplies subsequently dwindle. Then, Mom learns all the kids on the floor are going to be evacuated to Houston. Eleven kids. The 11 kids and their parents gather. Her daughter is taken by helicopter to Monroe, La., where Texas Children's Hospital has a large plane waiting. Meanwhile the parents are still at Tulane. They don't even know if their kids arrived safely. Authorities keep telling the parents they will get them to Houston. On Wednesday, the parents are taken by small boat a few miles north of New Orleans to dry land. And they are left there. One of the mothers takes leadership of the group and pleads for help from a television crew. The TV crew transports the parents to a bus where they are taken to Lafayette, La. From there, the parents get into separate vans driven by Lafayette volunteers who deliver the parents to Houston. Mom and daughter are reunited in the middle of the night on Thursday. Marjorie Kosoy listens to the mother's story. Journalists aside, few people have sought to hear the stories of the Hurricane Katrina victims as intently as Kosoy. Kosoy and Sheryl Levin lead "Time to Talk About the Tough Times," a project of the Houston-based Red Bird Center, a bereavement-and-loss center. Red Bird Center developed out of a need for adults and teens to learn to process and understand grief. "In the wake of loss, people who grieve require a safe haven, sensitive professionals and tools to guide them through grief," says Kosoy, a psychologist. Red Bird Center is that refuge. Time to Talk comes out of Kosoy?s regular work and volunteer trips she has made to the Brown Convention Center and the Reliant Astrodome shortly after the evacuees began arriving in Houston. "Research has shown that having an opportunity to tell one's story, to share feelings and to receive support decreases the chances of negative long-term effects of trauma," she says. "Putting together a free group like Time to Talk felt like a natural way to give back to the community. And this is what we know how to do best." "The first week or so after Hurricane Katrina isn?t the time for talking," Kosoy says. " That's the time to take care of physical needs like food, medicine, clothing and shelter. You have to be able to take care of yourself physically first. Many of the evacuees were in a state of shock. Because of the shock, there?s no way to process your feelings. Most of the people I saw at that point were trying to find family and looking for a place to live." The next step for many evacuees was to find schools for their children. That?s when Kosoy began to get involved. "?The first phase of getting out in the community was to help the schools and faculty handle their own feelings," she says. "If you can?t deal with your own feelings, then you can?t help your students. We met, for example, with all the heads of the Jewish schools in Houston." Then last week, Kosoy began meeting with parents of students evacuated from the Gulf Coast. "When I meet evacuees, I ask them to tell their story. It's part of the healing process. After any loss, the first thing people need to do as they gather strength and recover from shock, is they need to make real to themselves what happened. The way you begin to do that is by telling their story. "?These evacuees are dealing with loss at multiple levels. It makes a huge difference because until they begin to tell their story and you begin to ask questions, they are not even aware of the different levels of loss. As you listen, you point out the levels and there's an "aha" moment." In other words, an evacuee might begin telling you the story of how they lost their house. But there?s more than just a house lost: "Many people can't even begin to understand the multiple levels of loss until they start talking." Does it take a professional to be a good listener? No way, says Kosoy. You simply need to respect the story. Ask intelligent questions. If you ask questions, ask them gently and respectfully. "?We all experience grief differently," says Kosoy. "There's no one right way to do it. What might work (in processing loss) for you, might not work for others. With children, the level they were at before experiencing loss will have a large impact on how they handle their feelings. If the child was anxious and struggling, the loss will tend to be more acute. Or if a teen was well put together, the recovery process will be easier ? but not easy. "Some people will have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress syndrome and some won?t," says Kosoy. "They are entitled to have some reaction to the trauma. "They need to give themselves permission to heal." Some children will regress and demonstrate childlike behavior in the weeks after the event. Others will exhibit anger, inability to concentrate or have difficulty separating from their parents. Teenagers are more difficult to peg because they will tend to mask their feelings. With kids, make sure they feel safe and get them back into some routine as quickly as possible, suggests Kosoy. Help them draw, verbalize or play through their feelings because they need a way to react. If you see major changes in behavior or regressive behavior over a period of time, consider taking your child for professional help. Parents have different stressors. Although they?ve been the ones trying to keep it together, they have to be able to express their pain around their loss, says Kosoy. "If they can do it together, it helps. But that?s not always possible because often adult couples try to protect each other and so they don?t express their feelings. We found that with the groups we do in our practice, sharing what you?ve been through with others gives you a sense here?s somebody else getting through the day and I can do it too." Kosoy suggests that many of us have a sense we have some control in the world. After going through Hurricane Katrina, many victims and even some who did not experience the hurricane directly feel there?s no control. There?s also the idea that bad things do happen in the world. Kosoy tells a story she learned from Naomi Remen: "Her family always had this big jigsaw puzzle on the table that they all worked on and members of the family would gradually add pieces. When Naomi was small, on this one particular puzzle, she didn?t like the dark pieces and so she hid them. Her mother couldn?t figure out why the family kept failing to complete the puzzle, so she counted the pieces and found some were missing. She asked little she what happened to the pieces and the girl showed her where she had hidden them under the sofa. "They finished the puzzle and it was a beautiful landscape. And her mother said, 'Look how the dark pieces, the ones you hid, contribute to the picture.' "The point is we have dark pieces in our lives, but they contribute to who we are as human beings. None of us will ever be the same after Katrina. The question is what do we do with the pain, what do we do with our feelings? "Do we make a better picture by contributing more to society or what? "You have to help people dig deep, help people do well in these difficult times. Look how phenomenal the Houston community has been. Out of tough times, we can make something good. "We don?t know why God let these things happen, but we can use our spiritual sense to make our lives and the lives of others better." For information on "Time to Talk About the Tough Times" or the Red Bird Center, phone 713/621-2700 or visit www.redbirdcenter.com.