A profound expression of grief...

It was April, 2014, the 20 year anniversary of the horrific genocide that happened in Rwanda.   My husband and I were on our way to hear a speaker, Dr. Christian, the Director of a hospital in Kigali and a Palliative Care physician.   I was so excited because in 6 months I would be traveling to Rwanda with a team to help facilitate the first bereavement group for the grieving loved ones of recently deceased Hospice patients.  


Dr. Christian gave a very moving and profound talk that night as he explained that it was overwhelming for him to be in Rwanda in the month of April, a time for collective grieving, preferring instead to travel around the world to raise awareness as to what happened in Rwanda.  He was friends with David Slack, the Hospice doctor with whom our team would be traveling so it was arranged that those of us involved in Life After Loss Rwanda, the name of the bereavement group, would meet with Dr. Christian later in the week as he wanted to know more about what we would be doing.


In that meeting we explained the grief model that we would be using that had been developed by Jenny Hunt, BSW who worked with traumatized communities in Africa.  Dr. Christian offered a word of advise.  He explained that culturally Rwandan people were private, not given to sharing feelings.  “The tears of a man flow from within” he said, an important proverb that we heard again and again in Rwanda.  He went on to encourage us to “push a little” that it was time people shared their grief and that this would not come easily.


With that recommendation the US social workers decided to add a component to the bereavement group called the flower ceremony.  This would come towards the end of the 2 week group so that people would have had time to know one another.  At the flower ceremony we had handfuls of the beautiful purple flowers that are the traditional flowers of mourning in Rwanda.  They are long and stalky with beautiful purple flowers that look like pompoms.  Next to them was a large pitcher of water.  We had invited the participants a few days before this ceremony to come with a picture or special reminder of their loved one to be shared this day. Each person was invited to come and place a flower commemorating their loved one who had died on Hospice care, the person who had brought them into this group.


What happened was not what we anticipated.  As people came to place a flower, they took more flowers as they named family they had lost during the genocide.  There was deep sobbing, there were group members supporting each other in the midst of profound grief.  I worried that we had inadvertently  re-traumatized people.  Our very skilled interpreter reassured us that this was not the case and in fact, this intense grieving was important.


Later various participants told us that this was the first time in all these years that they had really spoken of their loved ones who died in the genocide.  They expressed a deep gratitude for being able to say their names and honor their memory. 


Since that first trip to Rwanda I have returned twice and been able to participate, to varying extents in the flower ceremony.  My admiration is for the deep resilience of the people I have been honored to work with and to know.  Hand in hand with this profound expression and release of grief came  an optimism and hope for the future.  


Dee Caplan, MSW

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