In Puerto Rico, many families found themselves separated or isolated after Hurricane Maria, either because the roads were blocked, or because phones and internet were not working. This isolation particularly affected the families who lost a loved one because of the hurricane. It is still difficult for them to share their grief, as people around them are less available, having to attend to their own needs after the disaster. The American Red Cross offers emotional, spiritual and financial support to those grieving families, through its Integrated Care and Condolence Team (ICCT).
"Our volunteers include health, mental health and spiritual care professionals, as well as case workers," explains Danielle Stoppel, Individual Disaster Care Lead and Disaster Mental Health Manager. "This allows us to attend to all the needs of the family. Death is something that is not usually talked about, so when a family shares a death with us, it is like a gift. A very private and profound gift.”
Katira Álvarez, member of the ICCT, has been visiting, listening to and comforting families who have lost a loved one as a consequence of Hurricane Maria. "Many of the people who have lost a loved one tell us that this is the first time they can talk about it, as their relatives and friends are still unaware. I let them know that the Red Cross is a witness, that we care about what they have gone through," she says.
GRIEVING A DIFFICULT PROCESS
* The original names have been modified
A respectful silence prevails this morning onboard the Red Cross vehicle in Puerto Rico. Katira Álvarez and José Llanos from the Red Cross Integrated Care Condolence Team utter few words, only to indicate the route or to inform the persons waiting for their visit that they are on their way. The two volunteers are already in deep empathy, long before the visits start, connected through silence to the sorrow they are about to acknowledge. Outside, under the cloudy skies, the strong impact of Hurricane Maria can be measured by the amount of blue tarps replacing the roofs and the vegetable debris still piled up in front of the gardens.
"Grieving is a difficult process," warns José Llanos, chaplain and former police commander, before parking the vehicle in front of a white cement house. Above the chipped red roof, a lone window supported by a few wooden boards is the only thing left of the home that once stood there.
Myriam* is sitting on the front porch, embroidering pearly sequins on a white veil. "My daughter is getting married next June," she explains. "My mother was a seamstress". Before Hurricane Maria shattered her home, her mother Angela* lived with her granddaughter in the upper house, the one with the Miami window. After the storm, she could not find her home, only part of her belongings scattered on one side of the garden and her granddaughter’s on the other.
"My mother gave up," says Myriam. "She was a happy person, who loved life and liked to dance". Her face darkens. "She was able to stand Hurricane Irma, but after Maria, she became sad, almost absent. She spent her time crying, crying, crying. She would say 'I want to go upstairs', but I had to tell her she couldn’t, because it was dangerous. Everything had fallen down, and there were electric wires lying all over. Every day she would stand outside, look at what was left of her little house, and cry”. After a pause, Myarim adds: “She left just like that, in that void. "
Myriam gets up and disappears into the house. Her daughter Daiana*, whose opaque glasses cannot completely hide her damp eyes, remembers: "My grandmother and I kept saying 'I'm going upstairs, I'm going home', forgetting that we no longer had a home”. She too can feel that big void. “Every night my grandmother slept next to my room. After the hurricane, my grandmother became weaker, she would often say 'I feel useless.’”
Angela died only three weeks after the hurricane. She didn’t feel well one morning. Myriam and Daiana tried to call an ambulance, but no one answered the phone. Communications were down all over the island. When an ambulance was finally able to make it, it was too late to save the elderly woman.
Myriam returns holding a large framed photograph. It shows her mother holding a big cake with white and pink frosting and an inscription in turquoise letters: "Happy 81st birthday". Angela looked a lot like her daughter. Myriam remembers: "She used to say: ‘The day I leave, I want you both to remember how I looked’”.
The two Red Cross volunteers listen attentively as Myriam and her daughter disclose their memories, the happy and the sad, about the beloved mother and grandmother they lost. Katira’s soft-spoken voice offers words of comfort while a pretty white kitten comes over to play with José's leg. Myriam apologizes: "She's very naughty! That's how she used to play with her.” Myriam explains that the kitten was born a week before hurricane Maria, and that she survived the hurricane, but her brother unfortunately did not. The family called the kitten Angelita*, after the grandmother.
As the kitten stops near the sewing table, from which a piece of the beautiful embroidered veil is hanging, Daiana continues to share her memories: "My grandmother used to say: 'Before I die, I would like to sew your wedding dress'. Unfortunately, it did not happen. I had postponed my wedding several times before, but now I have decided to advance the date, so that we can have something to rejoice about".
Red Crosser Llanos, who had been letting Alvarez lead the conversation, at last gets up. He proposes a prayer to the two women, which they accept. For a few minutes, Myriam and Daiana close their eyes in silence while they receive the chaplain´s blessing.
For the past month and a half I have been looking closely at Hurricane Maria and its chapters, embracing broken hearts and listening to horrible stories in which love prevails.
I am not the same person I was. I have visited the green, wounded heart of this island and its drowned coasts in search of unspoken truths. To do this well, it has been necessary for me to embrace the pain of others and give myself to them in the most genuine and generous way. And it is not that love and empathy are strangers to me, but I have never had to look so closely into the broken gaze of so many people. But then… the miracle after the embrace. In the misty thankful smile of the person that says to you: “I had not spoken about this to anyone… no one had asked me”. Death and Maria are well acquainted with each other. Do not let anyone tell you the contrary. I will soon complete my official duties in this endeavor. But I have no plans to stop listening.
Katira Maria Álvarez