What Next - Moving from Loss and
Trauma to Hope and Healing
February 13, 2008
By Paul Orieny, MA, LMTF and Alice Tindi, MSW, LGSW
A breach of humanity has occurred in Kenya, leaving people in a
state of shock and disbelief. To see human beings willfully
inflicting pain and death against another has wounded the souls of
Kenyans not just at home but everywhere. The violence affects
individuals as well as family and community.
As one Kenyan abroad recounts, “We cry ourselves to sleep, we
worry about our families at home, we have severe headaches that we
do not understand, our appetites are not the same, we feel or want
to be left alone, we break into tears every so often, let us just
say life ceased to be the same on December 30 2007.”
We feel the same pain; we are from Kenya and work at the Center
for Victims of Torture (CVT). Here we have found tremendous
support. In our work, we offer empathy to our clients, many from
African countries. Little did we know we would be in a similar
We offer below suggestions and information from our work
experiences with people who experienced torture and war trauma. We
hope these will be helpful to our brothers and sisters in Kenya
When a traumatic (mfadhaiko or bumbwazi) experience happens to or
is witnessed by a person, the body and the brain go into a state
of alarm during and shortly after the events. This state naturally
calls for one to fight, run away, or be inactive to counter the
danger. When our bodies and minds stay in this state for an
extended period of time, our well-being is negatively impacted.
For the first time, many Kenyans may be experiencing physical or
emotional (psychological) symptoms. Although these feelings can be
frightening, they are normal responses to abnormal situations.
These reactions may include:
- Profound disbelief these
incidents are happening. Feeling numb and helpless. This may
lead to loss of feeling for people, including your children and
- When disbelief and shock fade,
feelings of loss can occur. These may include profound sadness
over loss of loved ones or the suffering of loved ones, loss of
security, loss of assumptions about the world or your country (e.g.,
it could never happen here, we do not live in a war-torn or
terror-filled world, etc.).
- Recurring unwanted thoughts,
nightmares (jinamizi), and flashbacks may emerge, sometimes
worsened by watching the media or being exposed to reminders of
trauma. Irritability, anger and rage (Hasira), especially when
the trauma is caused by other human beings. Angry reactions come
from fear and hurt and can lead to aggressive acts, mainly as
attempts to take control (e.g., family conflict, verbal
- Anxiety (wasi wasi, shauku),
nervousness, increased states of alertness to counter danger;
such as mistrusting people and suspecting danger everywhere,
fear of leaving home, of letting loved ones out of your sight,
of other people, etc
- Moodiness (huzuni), loss of
interest or pleasure in activities nearly everyday, weight
change, sleep problems, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness,
helplessness and hopelessness, decreased ability to concentrate
and crying more easily..
- Guilt (Uaili). Feel guilty for
being okay, being in a good mood or having fun when others are
suffering. Remember, it is okay to have positive feelings and
- Physical problems such as
headaches, stomachaches, breathing difficulties, insomnia, high
blood pressure, nausea, changes in appetite, etc.
- Not wanting to be reminded of
places or people associated with the trauma.
- Symptoms continuing over a month
regardless of personal effort to lessen them.
- Forgetfulness and problems doing
things you used to do.
- Drug or alcohol abuse – many
people will tend to consume more alcohol or drugs in an effort
to reduce the suffering associated with their symptom. This only
adds to the suffering and should be seen as attempts to
self-medicate. If you seek out drugs or alcohol, practice the
self-care suggestions below or seek appropriate help if
Below are things you can do to help
yourself and others:
- Recognize your feelings. These
events have had a deep impact on you and affected your community
in many ways. Accept that your emotions may fluctuate for a
period. Grieving takes time and cannot be rushed.
- Deal with your anger in a
non-destructive way. Don’t take it out on others or yourself.
- Reach out to others. Everyone
needs reassurance and kindness during these times.
- Remember to do things that feel
good to you. Try to eat and sleep regularly. Try not to give in
to guilt. We all have a right to experience life to the fullest
We realize that many Kenyans are
reluctant to seek help, especially when it addresses psychological
needs and specifically when it is associated with the word ‘mental
health,’ because this implies being ‘crazy.’ But if help is not
sought out and psychological needs not addressed, emotions are
stored up and like a covered cooking pot, it is only a matter of
time before the pressure explodes and spews out hot, dangerous
As you try to resume your daily routines, remember, if you are
experiencing the symptoms suggested above, find the courage to
seek help. Even secondhand exposure to violence, such as through
the media or by living with someone who experienced trauma, can be
traumatic. You can find help from a teacher, counselor, pastor,
priest, doctor, a nurse, family member or a friend.
Paul Orien and Alice Tindi are clinicians at the Center for
Victims of Torture and are from Kenya. The Center for Victims of
Torture is a nonprofit whose mission is to heal the wounds of
torture on individuals, their families and their communities and
to stop torture worldwide.