The terrorist attack at the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013 was a despicable and senseless act, which left several people dead; others maimed, and many more traumatised by the events that took place right under their nose. Many people were affected – some friends and loved ones, family members and work colleagues, while many others lost their livelihood as the businesses went down with the terror attack. President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of national mourning for the victims, and flags were flown at half-mast during that period. Kenyans were mourning, and many still are.

The Westgate tragedy is not an isolated terror attack or  tragedy as Kenya has witnessed many other terrorist attacks and tragedies including the Sinai fire tragedy, Sachangwan petrol tanker tragedy and Kyanguli boys’ tragedy, among others. Indeed, everyday, people grieve the death of a loved one, loss of a marriage, loss of a job, being diagnosed with  a chronic or terminal disease, or even loss of independence after a serious accident or illness. So how does one deal with grief and loss, or even help a victim heal from such an  experience with less distress? In this article ESTHER KIRAGU addresses the issue.

Finding the gift in one’s adversity…

Jenetta Barry, an international grief and trauma specialist who is currently working with some of the Westgate victims, shares her experience dealing with grief and loss after the death of her daughter Jennifer, who committed suicide eight years ago at the age of 16.

“Jennifer had been walking a path of depression for  sometime, and severally showed signs of some disorder, though it was difficult to pinpoint what exactly the disorder  was. But at the age of 14, she came to me and said she  had secretly been suicidal for a while. The day Jennifer committed suicide; we had just had an enormous argument.

As a mother I was applying tough love and putting my foot down after she had constantly been breaking the rules of the house. Angry, Jennifer went to her room to pack. I sensed something wasn’t right and followed her to her room. When I opened the door, I found Jennifer hanging with a broken neck in the shower. I was traumatised,” she explains.

Jenetta recalls going through a myriad of different  emotions; relief that Jennifer could no longer hurt herself since this wasn’t her first suicide attempt; relief that she was no longer responsible for Jennifer; feelings of wanting to revive her daughter; disbelief that her daughter was dead; blaming herself for it, and many other emotions.

She asserts that grief is not a medical condition that  one gets a pill for and gets well. Neither is it depression, a mental disorder, or a pathological condition. Rather, grief is a natural process and a vital tool in search for meaning after loss, and that it needs to take its course for one to be healthy emotionally.

“Societies worldwide are getting addicted to the belief that death should be avoided at all costs. As such, people don’t talk about it and neither do they deal with it unless forced to, yet death is one of the most natural processes in life,” she explains.

Jenetta says that often people try to deal with death using  Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s model of five stages of grief namely; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She is however of the opinion that these don’t always work because dealing with death is a cycle and not a stage, and that it works with both positive and negative aspects.

“With death and loss one needs to find as much value as there is loss, as much positivity as there is negativity so that they can find an equilibration (balance) in order to live a life filled with love, acceptance and gratitude,” she says with deep conviction, adding that this is what she helps her clients see.

Helping a victim deal with grief…

During a grieving moment, most people often have no idea what to tell someone who is in anguish. Probably this is because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, seeming to intrude or making the person feel worse by relieving the experience all over again.  It is important to know, however, that there are many ways you can provide comfort and support to a grieving friend or family member.

Simply having someone to lean on, listen, and be there can be a great support system by itself. You need not have all the answers in order to give advice to someone who is grieving.  The most important thing you can do is to simply be there. Dr. Mutheu Talitwala, a counseling psychologist, says that it is important not to say too many things to a  grieving person, as you may say irrelevant things. “Just be there for the person. Even if you are there and are saying nothing, that in itself is enough,” she says.

Although, it is common to feel awkward and unsure of what to do or say to someone who is grieving, the following suggestions may help during this difficult time:

First acknowledge the incident that took place. This by itself is an indicator that you are open to talk about the situation. Although the victim may not want to talk at the time, they are aware that you are willing to listen whenever they feel ready to talk.Express genuine concern about what happened rather than using the opportunity to try and get to know details of the incident.  Be sensitive enough to the victim so as not to  make them relieve an experience they are not ready to for the sake of satisfying your curiosity or your need to know the outcome of the events.

Offer support.  Although you empathise with the situation, do not assume that you know how the person feels. Ask them to let you know what you can do for them.Since not every victim will let you know how you can be of help to them, it is important to find practical and simple ways to help. Such as ensuring they have proper meals. If they have children, you can help by dropping the children to school or putting them to bed at night.

Stay connected.  Don’t just offer your one time support and then leave, keep calling or visiting them just to find out how they are holding up. In the early years of her career, Dr. Mutheu, who at the time was a nurse, once received 14 children who were admitted to a hospital suffering similar ailments. However, in a span of hours, 10 of these children died in her arms. The experience traumatised her especially since she believed the children died from a preventable disease. This led to a long search for answers and further training in preventing health and palliative care on loss and grief, knowledge that she shares in her book: When Death strikes, what next?

“People generally lack any preparedness on how to deal with grief and loss because we come from cultures that consider death a taboo subject. And this is true of both the African and Western culture. This means that since we don’t talk about death freely, we aren’t prepared on how to deal with it. When dealing with someone who is grieving, allow them to say what they want to say when they feel ready to do so. If they want to cry allow them to, as this is how they are expressing their grief. If they need private time to be alone, let them have it,” she advises.

Dr. Mutheu emphasizes the need to have a form of closure. “Let the bereaved view the deceased’s body if they want to because this helps to provide some form of closure. Often when death occurs, children and teenagers are neglected as people strive to address the adults. But they too should be given attention. Try and explain to children and teenagers what death is in a very simple way. For instance, since they know animals die, you can use such an analogy to explain death to them.Avoid using certain terminologies such as the deceased  is asleep, gone or has departed, as children expect those who are asleep to wake up and if they are gone or departed, they will come back. Also, don’t use cliché phrases about the deceased such as “God gives and takes” or “God loved them more than we did”, especially if you are telling this to children. These phrases can be very hurtful to them because they don’t understand why God would love somebody and take him away. These children could be so hurt and alienated from God for that same reason,” she advises.

Although you cannot  make things better,  you can walk beside your friend or loved one as they cope with their grief. Jenetta says that often people try to get the grieving person to return to their former self but the truth is, after going through a tragedy one can never go back to their former self, as the experience changes you.

“You can’t fix a grieving person or return them to their status quo. People often say certain words and though they may mean well, these words often make the grieving people very frustrated and disconnected.  There is no manual on the best way to deal with someone who is grieving. Infact there is no right and wrong way. But simply being there for the person and listening to them is crucial because by just listening to them, you will know how to respond to them,” she says in conclusion.