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How does one start to review a magnificent, deeply moving account of loss, despair, and the slow process of healing via the reconstruction of one's world? First the facts and the emotion -- then the reconstruction of a life. This is such a profoundly moving book that I imagine it getting a major literary award. The author/victim/survivor is a very intelligent person with strong social and cultural resources. Her writing is elegant, spare, and unsentimental.
Sonali Deraniyagla comes from a distinguish Sri Lankan family with homes both in Colombo and London. On the morning of December 26, 2004, she and her family including her parents, her husband (Steve), and her two boys (Vik & Malli) were vacationing at a resort (Yala) on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka, when the large tsunami hit that coast with such a force that it destroyed hundreds of homes, swept away trees and vegetation, and killed thousands of people along the coast. The height of the wave was estimated to be between 30 and 40 feet at the resort, and the force such that it carried everything before it for 1 to 2 miles inland. The resort hotel was completely washed away except for its foundation. In Sri Lanka, 35,322 were identified as dead and 19,000 were missing and not recovered by 2006. More than half a million persons were displaced.
How did it appear to Sonali as the sole survivor in her immediate family? The initial reactions were sheer fear and disbelief. As she is being hurled by the water, she thinks "This cannot be happening. . . .I [see] brown water. . . .My head is above the water now [but]I am still being swept a such a speed. There is nothing that I can hold." (p. 11) Finally, the force of the water begins to slow and by floating on her back she can see the sky and other bodies in the water without knowing if they are dead or alive. When she can finally stand in the mud, she wretches, coughing up sand and blood, takes off her pants which are heavy with sand, mud and debris. Rescue workers arrived shortly, find her twirling in the mud, and forced her to come with them to a center, covering her nakedness with a shirt and later with a blanket. In her stupor, she vacillates between hoping her husband and children have survived and doubting that they could have. In the first two days, she hates to talk about what has happened to her and her family and vacillates between wanting to go back to Yala (which she does) and wanting to go to Colombo were her kin are. An over-riding emotion now is anger. For the next 6 months, she stayed in her cousin's room at a house in Columbo, leaving only to use the bathroom. Her overriding desire is to die: "How is this me? I was safe always. Now I don't have them. I only have terror. I am alone. My stomach cramped. I pressed a hot water bottle to my chest to calm the hammer blows to my heart, but they would not stop.
I stabbed myself with a butter knife. I lashed at my arms and my thighs. I smashed my head on the sharp corner of the wooden headboard of the bed. I stubbed out cigarettes on my hands. I didn't smoke, I only burned them into my skin. Again and again.
I don't have them to hold. What do I do with my arms?
Soon, very soon, I have to kill myself.
I was never left alone. An army of family and friends guarded me night and day." (pp. 42-43)
After four months, Steve and Vik's bodies are found among those in a large common grave and identified by DNA testing. When she is told this, she is thrown into emotional turmoil again. When she stumbles across references to things that she and the boys did together, the psychological pain is intense: "I must stop remembering. I must keep them in a faraway place. The more I remember, the greater my agony. These thoughts stuttered through my mind. So I stopped talking about them I would not mouth my boys' names. I shoved away stories of them." (p.51) She was barely able to offer one thing to the memorial service their friends planned for Steve in London. Next came drinking to excess. Once she started she could not stop because the drinking blotted out the unwanted memories. "If I drank through the night, I didn't have to dream. Each night I dreamed of fleeing, of running from something, some nights it was water, some nights it was churning mud, other nights I didn't know what. In these dreams always one of them died. Then I'd wake to my real nightmare.' (p.54)
Anger at the losses continued to overwhelm her. As she began to go out in Colombo, she visits her parent's house, which has been gotten ready for sale by her brother. On finding one of Vik's cricket stumps, she turns it into a weapon with which she can demolish their former bed. "I stabbed the mattress with the muddied point end, over and over, harder and harder, until a tear appeared, and again to make the hole deeper. . .. The four of us slept here in all our innocence. That'll teach us" (p. 69)
Finally, she can go back to Yala--with Steve's parents. After finding a page from one of Steve's economic reports, things changed for her. She became interested in finding everything that she could. She visited often and obsessively dug through the rubble of the hotel and went into the wilderness to find things of theirs. As she lay on the floor of their hotel room, the tightness in her chest eased. She began to feel calm and she "found the nerve to remember" (p. 75).
A crisis came when, at one year after the losses, her brother rented their parent's house to a Dutch couple. She took it as betrayal by her brother, raged at him for taking away a space that meant so much to her. So she began to stalk and harass the Dutch family. She conceived of it as something that she and Steve were doing together, but after a couple of months, the couple changed their phone number and she lost the will to continue the harassment.
In 2006, she went back to London for a memorial lecture in Steve's honor. "I am in England? I can't grasp the truth of this. . . .it is now almost two years since the wave. But the reality of being here eludes me. I can't focus. I am dazed. . . .If I have too much clarity, I will be undone, I fear." (pp. 87-88)
But in 2007, she begins to have pleasant flashbacks while riding in the English countryside with friends. She allows herself to be drawn into precise details of their Sunday afternoon rides in the country--what she did, what the boys did, and then the spell is broken. She sees her boys' shoes and remembers that the police took one for DNA testing and that brings her back to the reality of her loss. At nearly four years after the Wave, she returns to their home in London. She had dreaded this step, been afraid that it would undo her, but it did not. "I find myself at ease. It feels natural, despite my protestations to myself that this is not ordinary or natural because they are not here and never will be….And I slip into my old ways, unthinkingly. I begin to tidying up a bit, putting things where they should be. . .Who am I readying the house for, they are not coming back. Don't be a fool, this is mad. But I can't stop. I go into the kitchen and switch on the fridge." (pp. 100-101) She has three women friends over. They talk together and cry together. "[T]his is indeed like old times, but it seems bearable, I am enjoying it even. Then I warn myself. I shouldn't get too comfortable." (p. 104)
As she goes through things in the house--bills to be paid, items of clothing, dishware--she frets with herself. "I saw how, in an instant, I lost my shelter. This truth had hardly escaped me until then, far from it, but the clarity of that moment was overwhelming. And I am still shaking. [My friends] would be aghast to see the mess I am now. This is not me, this is not who I was with [my family and friends]." (p. 111)
She is wracked with feelings of shame and a sense of unworthiness. She is a mother who did not do enough to save her children. "I feel helplessly responsible for their death." (p. 123) She is humiliated by her fate being outlandish, not palatable to others. She avoids telling strangers of her situation.
So, how does she get the focus, energy and strength to write such a detailed account of her losses? She reconstructs her world step by step. It happens as she allows herself to remember the details of everyday living with her family. By doing this, she can hold onto the ways in which she is still Steve's wife, Vik and Malli's mother. After a weekend with friends whose daughters played with her sons, she realizes that "so much of Vik and Malli remains embedded in these girls. So how can I want to escape from them?" (p. 138) She returns to Yala, but this time, she wants to know. When she returns to the house in London, "there is a difference now. Their absence is not so heavy, not so leaden. ...I sleep wearing Steve's sarong, and I remember trying to inch away from him as he insisted on sleeping wrapped up in me. And how badly I still want that. Yet I am warmed by this knowing and this wanting. It helps me better tolerate the bareness of our bed." (pp. 145-146)
She sees the children of her friends often now. "They are bubbling over when we meet, I enjoy their sparkle. And they make my boys real, so they are not beyond my field of vision." (p. 149) In 2010, she returns home to Colombo and finds that she is ready to grieve her parents and to be in their home. She arranges to have three Buddhist monks perform a ceremony that passes merit to the dead. The last 50 pages are devoted to opening up and to genuinely remembering her life with Steve, her parents, and her boys. It is written with great joy and one feels the growing comfort that she has in being in their lives still--not swept away but holding onto the life that will continue to be hers.
Why is this such an important book for therapists to read? The author deals with one of the most extreme kinds of loss one can suffer, with precision and force. She has the conceptual terms right. Over and over she expresses it as the loss of her world, of a world that had a place for her as mother, wife, and daughter (see pp. 32, 39-40, Ossorio, 2006; Wechsler, 2013). A person's world consists of her behavioral possibilities--what she can do and cannot do. A trauma transforms one's world because the unthinkable has happened. In a blink, she has lost her entire family. Such traumas have consequences for the self-concept. Suddenly she is not the person that she had taken herself to be. She is a failure as a mother, a person to be ashamed of and to be avoided. The reconstruction involves allowing herself to remember them, being less judgmental about what she could have done in the circumstances of the tsunami, and enjoying the thoughts of how they would have grown with their friends. By writing Wave, she has reclaimed her family not only for herself but for all of us.
Ossorio, P. G. (2006). The behavior of persons. Volume 5 in the Collected Works of Peter G. Ossorio. Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.
Wechsler, R. (2013). Trauma concepts: A Descriptive Psychology formulation of the nature of trauma and elucidation of treatment modes. In R. M. Bergner, K. E. Davis, F. Lubuguin, & W. Schwartz (Eds.). Advances in Descriptive Psychology (Vol. 10),
© 2013 Keith E. Davis
Keith E. Davis, PhD., Department of Psychology, University of South Carolina