10 January 2005 — Amritapuri
Dr. Asha from Stanford University, USA, a pediatrician currently helping to develop the cancer and pediatrics centres at AIMS Hospital, writes of her experiences helping children traumatised by the tsunami.
“Amma, sometimes I am having bad dreams” came the voice of a l0-year-old who had witnessed several of his relatives drown in the turbulent flood. Amma immediately took him onto her lap and held him close to her heart. She then called me to her side. “This son is having nightmares and is unable to sleep. Take all of these children and play with them. Let them get the comfort they need and let them express their sorrow.” Amma then said to the little boy, “This aunty is a doctor for children and would like to play with you all. Go with her.”
Within a few moments, Amma had set up the framework for the intensive psychotherapy these children would need to reintegrate into their daily lives after their intense trauma.
For a week after the tsunami hit, I was stationed as the allopathic doctor at one of the Ashram’s relief camps. As I treated hundreds for various physical maladies, I wished I had time to spend with the children, because they were essentially left alone to play while their parents were being treated. So I was so thankful when Amma gave me the opportunity.
On the first day, we blew balloons and drew funny faces, laughing at each other’s drawings. Then we made a competition between the boys and girls, singing the children’s favourite songs while dancing and clapping hands at increasing speed. That was an opportunity for us all to bond and for the children to become comfortable with us. Shortly after that, I opened the topic of dreams. I told the children that sometimes I have bad dreams and asked them if they do also. Several of the children immediately began expressing their deepest fears, describing what they had been going through when they slept.
When children suddenly lose someone they know well, it leads to deep-seated feeling of instability, which is reflected in their dreams. All of the children knew a few of the boys and girls who had drowned, and some are having dreams of these friends coming back to haunt them. Others lost uncles and aunts. Many are having nightmares of waves rushing into their homes and taking away their loved ones, or of bodies floating in the backwaters.
The village around the ashram is a very integrated community—so one person’s uncle is often another person’s cousin. The emotional ties are very strong. The children were clearly suffering as much trauma from another’s loss as from any in their own families. When I shared with them some of my own fears, they were able to relate, and this helped them to begin to let go of their own.
After the play therapy started, we brought the children in groups for darshan. Amma embraced each of them and told them to not be afraid. One of the smallest children—just four years old—told me later that she remembers her darshan every night before going to sleep and that she feels it has made her bad dreams go away.
The next day, we engaged all the children in painting murals. Though there were many bright colours and beautiful drawings, one common theme could be seen. Many of the kids were drawing schools, churches, homes, animals, and relatives—the very things they had lost so recently. By the end, several of them began to write messages to Amma, thanking her for being there with them.
With the cooperation of the local government, teams of psychologists and psychiatrists from AIMS have now started going to the villages to work with the children and adults there who are suffering from mental trauma. This is a long-term study that will go on for at least the next six months.