It’s Aug. 14, 2021, and I wake up to the familiar tone of numerous notifications. WhatsApp notifications are beaming every second. I do my typical routine: ignore the notifications, so I can practice mindfulness. To my dismay, mindfulness goes out the window the moment I pick up my phone and see the first message: “Shirley! Haiti was struck by an earthquake.”
In shock and unprepared to see what I know will traumatize my entire day, I do what my mother always told me to do in situations like this: I drink my Americanized version of te vèvenn. Calmed by the herbs, I prepare myself for the wave of grief I know I’ll soon be hit with. I start to conceptualize the number of lives lost while simultaneously trying to determine the best medium to share this information as a public figure in the Haitian community. I review my WhatsApp notifications, attempting to avoid any pictures and videos that may reveal emotionally taxing images of dead bodies piled on the street, just as they were in 2010.
Haiti makes headlines again. But this time, not for assassinations, political turmoil or riots, but for a natural disaster. As a Haitian American living in Florida, I choose to advocate for my homeland by using my voice. I turn to my online community, Haitians Who Blog, and tweet, repost, share and write as much as I can while trying to get through the day.
I cannot help but realize what a retraumatizing experience this is. In the past three years alone, Haitians have been dodging continuous blows of political upheaval, assassination, gang violence and businesses burned to ashes. I scream: “Why are we here again!”
I reach out to Ruth Jean-Marie, founder and chief executive of the August Project. She says the trauma “opens a part of you that you never realized you were living with, ... traumatizing you in a way you cannot undermine.” She fights back tears of powerlessness that reflect her own trauma.
It’s been 11 years, and here I am, too, powerless but trying to find ways to cope with the reality that yet another family member might be lost. However, this time it is worse. Fear overcomes my body as I scroll through countless tweets and public posts.
I start having flashbacks to the devastating earthquake in 2010, and I sulk in the reminder of the trauma associated with losing my grandmother and several other family members. I lean into making my second batch of tea for comfort. Trying to cope with the distress, the fear, the pain, I do what I know best: I take to Twitter to heal others while simultaneously giving myself subliminal advice:
It’s been four days now since the 7.2-magnitude earthquake ravished through the south of our mountainous land. Today, I stumble upon images and videos of people suffering. I look attentively, just to be sure I did not see a family member, a friend, a colleague on the screen, wailing under the heavy rains and brutal winds of Tropical Storm Grace. As I skip from app to app, my heart plummets because of the lack of compassion and empathy shown in the media.
But let’s really talk about this lack of compassion. More than 1,900 lives lost and many more displaced, yet there has been no empathy when it comes to how precious of a jewel Haiti is to the world. This is the time for radical empathy in Haiti and for the people who carry its traditions. But the world does not seem to care. The needle of empathy moves in the direction of mass tragedy voyeurism.
Trying to make sense of things, I lean on the compassionate community of social media. According to Beverley Andre, a Haitian American licensed marriage and family therapist, Haitian people “will always treat the symptoms and forget the person.” To counter these cultural norms, she offers these helpful tips for managing feelings of retraumatization:
·Nurture your emotions instead of rushing to make te vèvenn.
·Lean into the things that give you peace.
·Find something that keeps you grounded.
·Spend time with family or friends.
As I consider Andre’s great tips, I’m working to move past cultural norms and embrace silence. I’m slowing things down and finding time for my emotions.
Above all, I’ve resolved to remove the unnecessary diasporic guilt and stop focusing on the need to solve this past year’s trauma.
Shirley Dor is a relationship and sex therapist and the founder of Haitians Who Blog.