Boats ferrying residents from neighbourhoods; helicopters hovering across the skyline distributing packets of food and water bottles; familiar landmarks submerged in water; a loss of close to 400 lives and 1.5 million people displaced — it seemed like a disaster sequence from a science fiction film. Except that, the violence of the storm was very real. Chennai and parts of coastal Tamil Nadu faced the brunt of nature’s fury, in what has been described as the heaviest rainfall experienced in a century.
The storm brought life to a standstill and almost everyone experienced some kind of loss. Thousands were left homeless and vulnerable, at the mercy of the weather and the charity of good samaritans. For those of us, away from the city, watching the images on television, the situation created both empathy and a sense of helplessness.
A teacher in Chennai shared her concern about her students. She said that many of them were experiencing grief and unable to come to terms with the devastation they had seen. Most of the students expressed a sense of anger, frustration compounded by the fear of facing loss and control. The classroom is a microcosm of the grief experienced at various levels outside. As with most life experiences, there are no tailormade solutions. However, there are ways we can begin to face the fear of loss and grief and in the process use what is best for our own personalities and temperaments.
Compassion in action
A survivor of the hurricane Katrina disaster in the U.S. spoke about how her personal sense of grief dissolved when she got involved in relief work. She said that the process of actually serving food to the homeless and repainting a damaged school, helped channel her sense of helplessness.
There are many ways that one can help the less fortunate and get involved in the process of rebuilding. This can begin at home, with one getting involved and helping domestic staff, security, drivers and other residents in the neighbourhood who are facing difficulties. Small actions can help make a difference. During the post-Tsunami rehabilitation efforts, a group of students in the neighbourhood decided to plan after-school activities for children whose families were affected by the storm. The few hours that that the children spent painting, singing and dancing brought a sense of relief and respite.
The students who were involved in this project said that it really helped them see that they could make a difference. For those who are attuned to doing social service, there are many organisations that would require volunteers to help in an array of tasks. By becoming a part of the solution, we can feel more powerful and begin to channelise grief in a positive manner.
Compassion in reflection
For students, who are more attuned to introspection and reflection, there are small ways that one can get involved. Grief and witnessing suffering can be a transformative process when expressed through artistic means. Poetry and writing can be a powerful medium through which one can come to terms with the conflicts inside. Theatre can be an equally effective medium, where one can use it as an outlet to express solidarity with those suffering.
For those inclined to believe in the power of prayer, one’s daily remembrance can include those who are suffering. The prayer goes beyond our daily needs and wants, and, in silence, one can really sense the bond that connects all humanity, beyond the barriers of religion, caste and our personal ideas of family. The universal language of grief, brings about a deep connection that really reminds us of “Being human.”
History has always recorded the patterns of rebuilding hope after the cycle of destruction. Japan is an excellent example, having survived both the effects of war and natural disasters. The resilience shown, and the spirit of translating compassion into action, is inspiring. In our own country, we have seen this spirit manifest on various occasions.
Stories of Goodwill
Along with the visuals of disinterest, we also saw and heard stories of goodwill. Many opened their homes to complete strangers. There were thousands of army, navy and civic personnel who risked their own safety to ensure that people were rescued. A friend cooked 3,000 meals in his small kitchen to help the community. Neighbours who had shunned each other over past issues joined hands to help.
A friend shared on social media how he had avoided a certain neighbour because of his religion. That person turned out to be the Good Samaritan, helping my friend take care of his ailing parent. These stories of basic human goodness help to build hope. It reminds us that each one of us has the potential to be much more than what we think we are.
“Chennai rising” is a wonderful metaphor for our own personal growth. To rise above and beyond our personal fears and translate that into rebuilding hope is an adventure of a lifetime!