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 eighth 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 this session, we work with the survivors to identify what they have learned and how they have gained strength from those they have lost, to begin to restore some of their losses and rebuild their lives. In sessions seven and eight we use a story of a survivor, Cynthia, to highlight issues of loss and coping.
In the first part of the story, Cynthia’s husband and middle daughter die in a war. Cynthia survives torture and lives with her young son. She is separated from an older daughter because of the war. Following the story, survivors discuss what Cynthia lost, what helped her to bear the pain, and how she recalled positive memories. Survivors can relate to her losses, torture and uncertain future. In the second part of the story, Cynthia begins to rebuild her life, using the strengths she learned from her lost loved ones.
As we saw in session seven, grieving is complicated for survivors. Restoring losses and rebuilding lives can also present dilemmas. Many survivors spoke of being expected to stay grieving and not move on, facing judgment or worse. One man noticed, “Some people stay in mourning all their lives. My mother still wears black after many years, even to weddings. She seems stuck.” Many widowed women expressed being pressured to stay loyal to their dead husband by not moving on. One woman lost her husband and has been raising her kids alone for years. She would like to re-marry, but her in-laws are threatening to take the kids if she does so.
Alaa, a counselor, spoke to the dilemma that many women face in terms of moving on or even taking care of themselves.
When we read the second part of Cynthia’s story, how she found a job and started to form new relationships, the women had a lot of ideas of ways Cynthia could move on and still have a good life despite her losses. They put a lot of options out for her. But when we moved the conversation to talking about themselves, they only talked about what they could do for their children. I encouraged them to think about themselves but they had a hard time doing this. Arabic women feel it is their mission in life to take care of their children and they feel selfish if they focus on themselves. I think focusing on their kids is also a way for them to push back their pain.
Eventually the conversation started to shift. One woman said it helps her kids when they see her wearing make-up and taking care of herself. At the end, they started to talk about future plans and how to use grief to empower themselves. One said, “I need to do something to feel good, to remember my husband and to do something for him. He would want to see me have a good life, feeling happy. He would want me to go to this wedding and feel better.”
In session eight, we try to convey that we can hold two processes at once: grieving and honoring the memory of our loved ones while at the same time rebuilding our lives. Alaa mentioned that in this group, as facilitators, she and Jafar, another counselor, had inadvertently helped normalize grieving and sadness. “The women said they feel validated when they see me and Jafar tear up. This makes them feel there is hope, that there are good people in the world. This made me feel very good.” I saw over and over again in groups how this genuine presence and the qualities of the facilitators created this wonderful healing environment.
The survivors brought symbols of the “lessons learned” or strengths of the person or country they have lost. Those who had lost their countries mentioned songs, traditions and local sayings to help them reclaim their pride and dignity. Others discussed positive learnings from those family members they have lost. One man said, “I learned from my father all his principles and these are what has helped me become self-sufficient.” A woman told the group she was married at 14 years old and her mother-in-law “taught me everything. She always taught me to do the right thing.” One man, whose son had died, remembered that his son used to say, “If God is for you, who can be against you?” and this reminds him to say this to himself. Some commented that they have learned from their family members to “love well” and are focusing on loving the family members who are still alive, because, after all, “war doesn’t end love.”
One woman is very concretely using what she gained from her father to make a better life for herself and her family here in Jordan: “My dad was a photographer — this is what I took from him. Now I have started to do photography and my kids benefit because of the income. His qualities strengthened me and gave me confidence.”
We often make reference to the “toolbox” or “suitcase of coping skills.” The survivors are adding skills and strengths as they go through the group cycle. Now they have consciously added to their suitcase the lessons they have learned about how to live and love well, values, and qualities and are able to apply these to their current challenges.
In many of the survivors’ comments we hear echoes of the river of life. In the bittersweet mood of the group many survivors remarked, “Life goes on…life continues.” Indeed, life continues with sadness and strength, joy and pain, doubt and confidence. I saw a calmness and grace in the survivors as they held these qualities together.