Thursday, October 8, 2009

‘Deep calls to deep’

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Opinion/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (Psalm 42:7)

These words were roaring in my head all throughout last week, rising and crashing like a thundering symphony. Like a movie sound track gone awry. Brutal, majestic, exploding like Mozart’s “Rex tremendae.”
Like the psalmist and Job, thousands of Filipinos were left helpless in the face of the unprecedented rage of nature that swept Metro Manila and Rizal Province to the edge. There were those who described the tragedy as “biblical” in proportion, except that there was no Noah’s ark in sight.

Like many lucky ones, I was high and dry in my Quezon City home during those terrifying moments. But with all forms of media churning out endless images and news accounts of the disaster, those who were out of harm’s way but wanted to be connected through various modes of media communication experienced what is called vicarious traumatization.

I went to Marikina last Sunday to experience for myself the aftermath of the great deluge and the destruction that Storm “Ondoy” wrought. I was with some Benedictine Sisters who visited poor residents who were slowly rebuilding and emerging from the wreckage of their homes. The nuns have a big relief effort going on at their social action center in St. Scholastica’s in Marikina, but they felt that something more could be done besides handing out relief goods. And this was to visit quietly, almost unobtrusively, the scenes of destruction. And to listen.

And so we made our way through alleys, walked past mountains of mudded personal belongings on sidewalks and entered some wrecked houses. The residents were busy cleaning up, spading out the mud, hammering away, sorting out things, throwing out personal belongings that were beyond repair.

Busy as they were, they were eager to talk to strangers.

“Come inside my ravaged home,” a woman in an alley invited me. “Stay a while, and we will tell you our story,” she eagerly said, not sounding a bit defeated. And so I listened without pen or paper or recorder.

Other women emerged from their doors and extended the same invitation, trying to outdo one another in narrating what they went through in Tanong, Marikina, on Sept. 26.

Arm in arm, they said, they braved the neck-deep flood waters, children in tow, until they reached higher structures to perch on. Their remaining lifelines to survival—their cell phones—were of no use.

Many such stories continue to be told thousands of times but each story, each telling, is a survivor’s own. The day Ondoy let loose torrential waters equivalent to a month’s rain will forever be etched in every individual survivor’s memory and in collective memory.

But long after the waters have subsided, how do the survivors expunge the terror from their memories? How do the bereaved move on alone after the loss of loved ones? Will the sound of raging waters haunt them for the rest of their lives?

After coming from Marikina, I called my friend, Dr. Lourdes A. Carandang, a noted clinical psychologist and specialist in post-disaster therapy. “Deep listening empowers,” she told me. Having someone to listen empowers survivors of traumatic events. Just as empowering is the telling of the story itself.

Story sharing and deep listening are empowering especially for survivors of traumatic experiences.

One should not be surprised to find survivors eager to talk to strangers about something so terrifying and devastating, Carandang added. And it is good that way, she affirmed. Would that there were as many listeners as there were stories to be listened to.

Post-disaster relief and rehabilitation should go beyond the material and economic. The survivors need healing not just of their physical wounds but of their spirit as well. Adults, and children most especially, are vulnerable to the long-term psychological effects of their horrible experiences if no one helps them ease their trauma.

Carandang has been involved in addressing the post-traumatic stress of survivors of major disasters and helping them come to terms with their pain and loss. She and her team of psychologists’ field experiences could provide insights in handling cases.

In 2005, after killer landslides and flash floods brought the provinces of Quezon and Aurora to their knees, I sought out Carandang who shared her ground-breaking book “Pakikipagkapwa Damdamin: Accompanying Survivors of Disasters” (Bookmark). The book was the result of her and her Ateneo University team’s efforts (funded by Unicef) to give psychological aid to survivors of the 1990 earthquake, the 1991 Mount Pinatubo and 1993 Mayon Volcano eruptions.

Carandang and her team’s “helping manual” could very well have been written for the 2005 Southern Luzon tragedy. It also found context in the catastrophic 2005 tsunami tragedy that killed more than 200,000 in Asia and Africa. And in last week’s deluge that paralyzed Metro Manila and Rizal province.

“All persons have inner resources that can be resurfaced, affirmed and reactivated in times of crises,” Carandang stressed, “and this can be done through a helping process that respects their dignity even in the worst of circumstances. This is the essence of accompanying the survivors—by being with them, listening deeply and sincerely to their stories, and knowing and affirming that they have these inner resources.”

More on pakikipagkapwa-damdamin next week.