The Haitian Crisis: Coping with a Traumatic Event

The aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti continues to be felt around the world.

The aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti continues to be felt around the world. Here in Canada, we see the horrific images on television day after day and the pictures can be deeply disturbing for us, and for our children. When tragedies like this happen, we all feel less safe and worried that something similar could happen in our community. As children can be the most traumatized by large scale disasters they don’t understand, this document provides some tips to help them cope better.

In addition, many of us have, or know people who have, family members and friends living in Haiti or in the Caribbean area. If we are worried about someone living in the area, or want to support someone else, some suggestions are provided below. If you are a supervisor and have an employee who has been directly impacted by the earthquake, this document also provides tips for you.

Helping children cope

  • Talk with them about what happened and answer their questions as honestly and as best you can in age-appropriate language that they will understand. Don't be afraid to admit you don't have all the answers.
  • Listen. Ask them about their feelings and provide reassurance by giving them lots of hugs.
  • Talk about how your family might be able to help by sending money or praying for victims. Focus on the heroic stories that are being broadcast and how the international community is coming to the aid of the country, rather than on the disaster stories.
  • Monitor their television viewing – you might want to limit children’s exposure to the news.
  • Use this opportunity to establish a family emergency plan. Knowing that there are steps to take should something similar happen in this part of the world can be reassuring for children.

If you are worried about someone living in the area

  • Try to get accurate information about what is going on and try not to rely on speculation or rumours.
  • Identify your feelings such as anger, sadness and fear - share them with others and ask for their support.
  • Try to maintain a regular routine of a healthy diet, exercise and sleep. Even if the events around you may not be routine, you will be better prepared to cope if you are healthy, rested and alert.
  • Limit your use of alcohol or other substances that numb your pain as they may impair your judgment and can exacerbate your feelings
  • Allow yourself to feel your feelings without judging yourself.
  • Get involved. Find ways to help make a difference such as a participating in or organizing a fundraising event.

Helping a friend or co-worker who might have lost someone

  • Talk about the loss and offer condolences, rather than avoiding the subject. Even if you feel awkward, show you care through your words and/or gestures. Physical touch such as a light touch on the shoulder or a hug by someone who cares creates a powerful bond. The level of physical touch should only be one that is comfortable for each of you.
  • Be a good listener. Let them know they are safe talking to you about what they are experiencing and feeling. Refrain from giving unsolicited advice.
  • Understand what grief is. After a significant loss, people experience all kinds of difficult emotions such as shock, anger and guilt. Five widely acknowledged stages of grief are: denial> anger> bargaining> depression> acceptance. However, it is important to appreciate that not everyone goes through all these stages and that everyone grieves differently. There is no ‘normal’ timetable for grieving. Grief can feel like an emotional roller-coaster ride with the intensity likely to ebb and flow.
  • Offer assistance with practical things like cooking, looking after the children and fixing things in their house. Stay with them if they do not want to be alone. Ask if there are other ways you might be of assistance.
  • Respect their need to be alone sometimes.
  • Suggest they seek professional help if need be.

How to support grieving employees

  • Tell them regularly that you care about how they are feeling and that you are there to help if they wish.
  • Respect the fact that people may be deeply affected by a death, even if they did not have much direct contact with the deceased because they may have been significant to them in some way. It is also possible that the death may have reactivated another grieving process which they had not completed.
  • Resist the temptation to want employees to “get on with it” quickly. Grieving is normal, and you cannot speed up the process. If you show signs of exasperation, this can make the grieving period longer and more difficult.
  • Let other employees know what has happened as you obtain more information on the circumstances of the employee’s loss.
  • Be on the lookout for signs of serious destabilization which could indicate that the person needs additional help (i.e. no improvement, or even deterioration of attitudes and behaviours). Offer your support, and encourage the person to contact the EFAP.
  • Resist the temptation to use clichés like “I know how you are feeling” or “It was fate.” Although such comments are intended to diminish the feeling of loss, they often have the opposite effect.