How my work with victims of the Troubles helped me comfort tsunami victims

Belfast Telegraph

Feb 22, 2005


Arlene Healey (46), manager of the Family Trauma Centre in Belfast, was part of a six-strong team which travelled to Thailand with the Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Their brief was to help British survivors cope with the trauma - part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office/British Embassy response. Arlene, who lives in Kircubbin, Co Down, with husband Dennis and children Ben, 20, Scarlett, 14, and ten-year-old Elhe, tells JUDITH COLE about her experiences How my work with victims of the Troubles helped me comfort tsunami survivors.
22 February 2005

In Thailand we were met with scenes of absolute devastation. Villages had been flattened and thousands of people left homeless. For many British people, their dream holiday had turned into their worst nightmare.

The injuries people suffered were like road traffic injuries - except that they had happened under water. People were swept away by trees, cars and motorbikes. The smaller hospitals were completely overwhelmed.

I brought with me to that situation years of experience working with the aftermath of Troubles-related incidents like the Omagh bombing and Holy Cross, as well as incidents involving multiple deaths such as road accidents.

Even so, I didn't know what to expect when I set off for South East Asia and I was very anxious. I had never been in a situation like that before, but once I got there and began my work with the families, I was in my own regular zone.

My task was to help ten British families who had survived terrible circumstances. Many had very strong survivor guilt - perhaps the person who helped them keep their head above the water when the first wave hit, had then died in the second wave. People were saying to me, 'why am I here when people I love have died? Why did God do this?'

These are very profound questions and a lot of people turned to religion for help. Many were comforted by services conducted on the beach by Buddhist monks. After all, most of the victims had been on the beach when the wave came.

Some people had been out on a boat trip and had lost their children and found it very difficult to cope with that responsibility. I told them it is very easy to torture yourself with hindsight.

As a parent you make the best decision you can at the time. Tens of thousands of people had decided to take a boat trip there in the past year, so that decision in itself is not a factor.

In severe emotional trauma we are in overdrive and the logical part of our brain does not function for a while.

It is important to stress to victims that there is a lot they can do about the future. Some of the families began to grasp this very quickly.

The stories were heartbreaking. One man lost his girlfriend - his soulmate - and couldn't imagine being close to anyone ever again.

Some people had lost every member of their family. Sometimes the things I said to them might have sounded trite, but you can only be there for them and do your best.

It is so sad to think of a mum going home from holiday with her suitcases, but without her family.

One family of six had been on a holiday of a lifetime, but it ended in the most unimaginable tragedy when two adult children and their father were killed.

In cases of multiple bereavement all the roles change. Whatever job the dad did had to be taken over by the mother, and someone else became the eldest child.

There were some miracle stories which gave people hope - that their loved one could be floating on a raft or be unconscious in hospital.

It was unbelievably hard, especially when children were involved. How do you come home without a child? You don't get over that. It is the worst thing that can happen, so people keep hoping.

A lot of people have a really long, tough road ahead of them and trauma services in the UK are generally very patchy. In Northern Ireland, however, we have a better than average level of support because of our situation.

I'm used to seeing family members who have had multiple bereavements, but at least they can usually have a funeral relatively quickly although I am conscious that the families of the Disappeared have not been able to recover their loved ones. Yet even in those cases you are usually talking about an individual in the family, rather than half the family.

Many tsunami survivors have suffered more complicated bereavements because of how long they had to wait for a body to be identified. When people have lost multiple family members, the body recovery and identification process happens in dribs and drabs.

This raises many questions and dilemmas in itself. Do you go ahead with a funeral or wait until other bodies have been found?

Even after the Bam earthquake in Iran they were able to recover bodies relatively quickly. But in South East Asia there was the additional factor of the sea, which made things much more difficult.

One particular family lost two family members, but only one body has been found. Another family endured horrific trauma when the mum and young kids were separated from the dad. It was a long time before they got back together again - and when you find yourself in circumstances like that you think the worst.

When you think that you, or people close to you, are going to die, it really accentuates the trauma.

Another factor is that when exposed to severe trauma your body takes care of you very well. The adrenaline numbs the pain and that can last for quite some time. After that, the pain escalates and trauma symptoms begin to develop.

Other survivors were young people who'd been travelling alone and, when their parents arrived at the hospital, they were extremely concerned, so much so that at times they were overwhelming the young person.

It was confusing for victims like this - on the one hand they were trying to tell the parents that they could manage the situation, and on the other they were asking them not to leave their side. I helped the parents make sense of that.

A lot of my time was spent trying to reassure people that many of the difficulties they were experiencing were to be expected and would, in most cases, subside.

F or instance, they would describe vivid nightmares, or their inability to have a shower because the feeling of water on their face made them feel they were drowning again. They were keen to hear how people I had worked with before had managed to move on with their lives.

That's when my experience at the Family Trauma Centre, which opened in January 1999 following the Good Friday Agreement, was invaluable. Most of our work concerns Troubles-related trauma, but in the past few years we have had other cases referred to us, including parents of children killed in road traffic accidents, families coping with suicide or accidental drownings.

Our referrals over the past six years mirror the political story in Northern Ireland: parents and children caught up in the Holy Cross dispute; families affected by loyalist feuds; the Short Strand and Cluan Place problems.

More recently there has been a gradual increase in referrals of families who have been held hostage or caught up in armed robberies.

And we're also very used to working with families living with continual trauma, for example, those who are worried that their home will be attacked at any moment.

In Northern Ireland, both sides involved in a situation will feel that they are misjudged and misunderstood by people in the 'other' community.

It's not up to us to judge or question, but to respond.

Whether you see a family on one side of the Holy Cross dispute or the other, both have had their lives destroyed. Young children are young children. They have the same nightmares.

I have also worked with families who've had relatives murdered. In many cases no-one has been brought to justice and the wounds stay deep and raw.

There are 1,800 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland and I am working with a lot of those families, who have to deal with the grimmest of circumstances and try to take just one step forward.

As for victims of so-called punishment attacks, some of these are children and very rarely is anybody brought to justice.

If more people saw the stories behind the headlines it would make a difference. We see children who are disabled for the rest of their lives, and that's the reality of it.

Whether I am working in Northern Ireland, Thailand or some other part of the world, I've had to learn how to use my own support network, my team, to keep myself well - otherwise I'd be no use to anyone.

When I go home at night to my home, to my husband and children, I just have to leave behind all the injustice I see.