Grief counselors on hand to help families after Kenya attack
Apr. 10, 2015
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — There was sobbing and silent grief. Some boiled with bitterness, while others found solace in memories of the dead. One mother considered suicide until counselors talked her out of it.
The raw emotions were on display this week at a Nairobi morgue as relatives viewed the bodies of their loved ones killed April 2 in an attack at Garissa University College by Islamic militants.
Parents emerged in shock and hysteria after seeing the corpse of a cherished son or daughter. Their grief also played out in the privacy of tents, where counselors offered words of consolation.
A small army of counselors, many in Kenya Red Cross vests, were deployed to the Chiromo Funeral Parlour to lend support after the attack by al-Shabab, a Somalia-based extremist group that killed 148 people. The morgue operation was winding down Friday as bodies were handed over to families for burial after they were identified.
It was intense and sometimes exhausting work for the counselors.
"You have to be there," whether it means embracing a grieving parent, talking or just being present without saying anything, said Sammy Mwangi, a worker with the Kenya Red Cross.
Family members were traumatized by the violent deaths of young men and women in whom they had invested scarce resources for their education. Many relatives traveled to Nairobi by bus for hours from small towns and villages, and they were overwhelmed at first by their unfamiliar surroundings.
Mwangi said Thursday he had counseled up to 30 people a day, ranging from groups of 10 to a single individual.
"Sometimes, I get overwhelmed. But as a counselor, I'm trained to deal with that," he said, adding that he and his colleagues discussed the challenges of their work in a debriefing session at the end of each trying day.
"I feel lighter when I share it. I feel it's not my burden," Mwangi said.
He recalled a case of a woman from Busia, near the Uganda border, who lost her sister in the attack and had to sell a chicken to raise bus fare for her first trip to Nairobi to identify the body. She arrived without a change of clothes, and on the first day, "she couldn't even speak" because she was so upset, Mwangi said.
As the days went by, she grew calmer, but suffered a "double tragedy" when one of her relatives was killed in a car accident while heading to join her in the capital, according to the counselor.
Margaret Kenyatta, the wife of President Uhuru Kenyatta, visited the morgue this week and was escorted by Red Cross officials and an entourage of men in dark suits. Hands clasped, she showed no reaction when a woman was helped out of the morgue building, wailing in grief. Margaret Kenyatta later signed a mortuary book with the inscription: "Deepest condolences! Kenyans' unity in these trying times is truly heartening."
One of the first funerals for the students killed in the attack was held Friday near Nairobi. Family and friends gathered for the church service and burial of 22-year-old Angela Nyokabi Githakwa, who had been studying business management. Some of her friends who attended said the government should do more to protect Kenya's students.
Red Cross counselor Sheila Munene has talked to about 50 relatives in the past week. Sometimes, she said, those grieving are so upset that all one can do initially is to let them weep and perhaps offer water, and eventually encourage them to think that "somebody somewhere cares for me."
"Crying is a relieving therapy," added Munene, who recalled a mother who said she wanted to kill herself after learning her son died at Garissa. The mother, who has two younger children, abandoned that plan after being told: "Think about the two children who are left behind. What are you going to do with them?"
Munene said she had her own difficulties after the first sessions, with visions of bodies traversing her mind at night.
"God, what is happening to me?" she remembered thinking, though her mood improved after discussing her stress with colleagues.
A woman whose 23-year-old cousin was killed said she benefited from talking to counselors.
"The best thing to do is to understand, to accept what has happened," said the woman, Phanice Lijodi. "They allow you to cry, they allow you to absorb the reality, the truth. And that, I saw, quickens healing."