In our international projects, our healing work for torture and war trauma survivors is conducted through group counseling. Groups typically meet for 10 weeks. This is the seventh in a series of posts by Veronica Laveta as she follows the counseling group cycle in Jordan. Veronica Laveta is CVT’s clinical advisor for the Jordan project.
Read the previous entry or the next entry in the series.
In session seven, we focus on acknowledging and grieving the wide range of losses survivors have endured. In addition to the deaths of loved ones, survivors experience the loss of country, home, identity and dignity. Many survivors have missing loved ones and do not know if they are alive or dead. The session gives them an opportunity to talk about who or what they miss most as well as to explore ways of coping with the loss.
The sessions started with a discussion about traditional mourning rituals and the underlying purpose of those rituals. The groups that had mixed Syrians and Iraqis from rural and urban areas could see the commonalities of their communities’ rituals. In the group discussions, it became clear that grieving is complicated for many survivors. Sometimes cultural norms specify a mourning period of time. When individuals experience war, torture and trauma, though, the grieving process can be more complicated and drawn out. Some survivors then feel guilty for grieving past the prescribed mourning period. Both men and women expressed feeling pressure to stay strong for their families and thus not wanting to show weakness by crying or expressing sadness. One woman who feels guilty for grieving said, “We want to hold our strength for our children.”
Some survivors with missing loved ones named cultural edicts pressuring them to not grieve because if they do, it will be a “curse,” meaning the loved one has died or will die. One woman, whose husband is missing, had resisted talking about her loss, because, “If I mourn for him, that means he is dead.” Guilt feelings also inhibited the grieving process. Many feel guilty for not being able to save their loved ones, for having to leave people behind, or because they lived when others died (also known as “survivor guilt”). Establishing a “group culture” and normalizing all of these complicated feelings helped many of the survivors eventually share emotions that they are unable to share anywhere else.
In this group model, we purposely broadened the concept of “loss” beyond loss of people. This turned out to be important because many identified loss of country as more devastating to them than loss of loved ones, largely because it resulted in loss of identity and dignity. Sometimes refugees feel they face discrimination and don’t belong in the guest country. The yearning for home is a desire to belong. One Syrian woman remarked, “I have lost everything. Everything can be compensated except for my homeland. I have been so humiliated here.” Another commented, “Dignity and honor are the most important parts of yourself. But if you have lost them, what do you have? You lose your country, you lose your dignity. Neighbors say, ‘You are Syrian, you must be part of ISIS and a terrorist.’ This makes us grieve for our country and lose hope we will ever have a good life.”
In one of our men’s groups where the participants never hesitate to share their opinions, an unexpected conflict broke out about whether it was worse to lose one’s country or one’s family member. One man started by saying, “Losing our country is worse than losing our brother.” Another countered, “What is the reason to live in your country if your whole family is dead?” The first man replied, “Country is always more important than your son’s death.” At this point the facilitator intervened and encouraged them not to compare, reinforcing that the experience of loss is unique to each individual. Another group member consoled those who feel isolated and alienated in Jordan, away from their homeland by saying, “It is up to each person to create relationships. I am your brother, we are your brothers. We are here for you.”
In the second part of the group, the survivors broke into pairs to have a chance to share with a group member what they missed most about the person or other loss. Breaking up into pairs allowed survivors to make a more personal connection with another group member, to have more time to discuss their loss and also to empower the listener to provide support. We are preparing the group for the time when the group is over to be able to continue supporting each other outside the group. The partner discussions laid that foundation.
This exercise had a tremendous effect on one father who had lost his wife and is struggling to support his kids. Loss also often puts people in unfamiliar family roles. The man had previously been the primary provider and hadn’t had much of a role in parenting his children and running the household. He shared with his partner how he missed his wife who was “funny and lovable” and also how hard it is to manage the home. His partner was impressed with him, saying, “I don’t know how you make it on your own. I can only imagine how hard it is. How do you cook and clean? I wouldn’t be able to function!” The father said, “It made me feel so much better to hear him say I was doing a great job with the kids. I used to think what my wife did was easy, but it is not easy!”
Others commented on their experience after the pair work. “When I opened my wound, it is as if he is the doctor helping me heal the pain.” “I feel more relaxed. You opened your heart and the support helped me be patient.” “I feel his pain when I listen to him, but I feel good that I can give him encouragement.” “I felt his pain is my pain. We are helping each other.”
Many of the groups had a lovely silent candle ritual at the end that allowed them to remember their loved ones and silently grieve with the support of the group. We all participated, reinforcing that we have all experienced loss and this common experience brings us together. They were also able to silently say something to their loved ones they had not been able to say due to the suddenness of death. I felt the power of this ritual and the solemn but sweet mood of the group as we remembered our loved ones.
In our international projects, our healing work for torture and war trauma survivors is conducted through group counseling. Groups typically meet for 10 weeks. This is the fifth in a series of posts by Veronica Laveta as she follows the counseling group cycle in Jordan. Veronica Laveta is CVT’s clinical advisor for the Jordan project.
Read other entires in the series.
– See more at: http://www.cvt.org/blog/healing-and-human-rights/jordan-counseling-group-session-six-difficult-moments-part-2#sthash.17F4V4PS.dpuf