In the aftermath of the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, victimized children face an increasing need for help in coping with the death of loved ones, according to an American expert.
“There is a need for people to listen to what (the children) have gone through and for children to be able to play, to still be able to be children,” said Donna Schuurman, executive director of the U.S.-based nonprofit organization Dougy Center.
It is important for children “to be able to laugh, to be able to kick a soccer ball and to play with other kids, to be normal in a situation that is really not normal, because you’re not at your home and everything has changed in your life,” Schuurman said.
Established in 1982 in Portland, Ore., the Dougy Center has been providing peer support groups to grieving children and their parents. It has worked directly with more than 25,000 children in Oregon alone who were dealing with the deaths of close family members, including victims of murder, suicide, illness, drunken driving, plane crashes and terrorism.
The Dougy Center also worked in Japan in 1995 after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which led to the loss of 6,400 lives in the Kansai region.
Schuurman was in Japan in April at the invitation of Peace Winds Japan, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization engaged in emergency-relief and restoration activities on behalf of refugees and disaster victims around the globe.
Since March 12, the day after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Peace Winds Japan has been sending people to the disaster zone to provide emergency humanitarian aid.
Peace Winds has now turned its focus to mid- to long-term support, including providing care to victimized children with the help of the Dougy Center.
According to the health ministry, more than 100 children are currently known to have been orphaned by the recent earthquake and the number is expected to increase. This doesn’t include the many other young ones who have lost one parent or siblings.
“How are we going to protect the mental and physical health and the development of children who have experienced fear, sadness, heartaches and a sense of loss through such a shocking incident like the great Tohoku earthquake? That is a pressing matter that Japanese society as a whole bears responsibility for,” PWJ said in a statement.
PWJ has already been distributing toys and sporting goods for children in evacuation centers and schools in the disaster area. The group is also aiming to collaborate with the Dougy Center to provide emotional support for kids as well as training for adults who are in direct contact with them, including parents, teachers and volunteers. It may also set up support groups.
The support program established by the Dougy Center generally divides children into age groups where they have a safe place to share their grief and loss over the deaths of their parents, siblings, guardians or close friends.
During these 90-minute sessions, children also spend time engaging in activities such as sports, drawing or spending time in the “volcano room,” a fully padded small room that gives children space to express their emotions without risk of physical injury.
The Dougy Center aims “to find and make opportunities for kids to be able to express what they’re feeling,” Schuurman said. “When you keep (your emotions) inside, ultimately, they will get out, show up in ways that may not be helpful, whether it’s physical symptoms or anger toward others or suicidal thinking.”
The center also provides training for facilitators in the United States and other countries, and an estimated 500 organizations around the world — from Japan, Australia and Germany to Jamaica and Rwanda — base their programs on the Dougy Center’s support-group model.
Schuurman pointed out that death is the one common experience that people go through all around the world, whether they are child soldiers in Rwanda or disaster victims in Japan.
“Dying is really the only universal experience — birth is not guaranteed, but death is guaranteed,” Schuurman told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “And so everyone grieves when someone they care about dies. They may have different traditions around how they mark that or ritualize, but I think there is a universality to the experience of grief.”
The executive director has been to Japan many times since the Dougy Center was invited over by Ashinaga, a nonprofit group that gives emotional and financial support to orphans, after the Hanshin quake.
Ashinaga built a five-story complex in Kobe, dubbed the Rainbow House, based on a Dougy Center module in 1999. Such structures now also exist in Tokyo and Uganda.
Schuurman, who has been with the Dougy Center for 25 years, recalled the story of a Japanese girl whose mother was killed in the 1995 Hanshin earthquake. The girl had fought with her mother that morning before their house crashed down on them when the temblor hit.
The girl ended up going to Ashinaga for four years, Schuurman said, adding it took her a long time to express the guilt she was feeling, for the fight she had that morning and for surviving the quake while her mother did not.
Schuurman also offered a reminder that people re-experience grief as they go on with life, especially on memorable days like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, graduations, weddings and so on.
“Grief doesn’t end,” Schuurman said. “People so often say you need to forget or put that behind you, that you need to move on. But you don’t need to move on, you need to move through.”