Tsunami relief can't assuage Indian mother's grief

April 05, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

DAVANAMPATTINAM, India - Grief has no nationality, no creed, race or caste. Grief is indiscriminate, expressed universally in the same way, a profound emotional disturbance that rises from the core and pushes itself out onto a face contorted by the weight of overwhelming sadness. Tears run down that face, and the voice speaks in a whisper or a childlike whine, no matter how old that face is.

In the human experience there cannot possibly be a sadder event than the loss of a child. The grief it induces is practically unbearable, enduring and inconsolable. I know this because five years ago my own dear son died.

So I saw my reflection last week in the face of Selvi, the 38-year-old mother of once four, now three, daughters, whose grief is compounded by being unable to find Sandhya, her 13-year-old girl who was swept away by the tsunami that struck this fishing village on India's southeast coast Dec. 26. Weeping with her face in her hands, she says, "I want at least to see my daughter's beautiful face."

Speaking through an interpreter, she says, "Whenever I pass a place where we have been together, in the village or out collecting wood, I see the image of my daughter. All she ever wanted was to help our family."

Sandhya was not with the family when the tsunami struck with sudden and overwhelming force. She was out collecting firewood for cooking in the simple mud hut with a thatched roof inhabited by Selvi, her 45-year-old husband and their children.

Collecting firewood would have placed Sandhya closer to the beach when the huge wave rolled in and swallowed people, homes, boats, fishing nets and all belongings.

"There were 10 others collecting wood with my daughter," says Selvi, among those in this area with only one name. "They saw her being dragged out to sea, but they could not help her."

Selvi's own home was demolished. Selvi herself and her three other children were tossed and battered by the tsunami. "We have nothing left. I don't even have clothes. Everything was swept away - clothes, school books, everything."

But all of those can be replaced. Sandhya will never be replaced.

More than 10,000 people died in India the day the tsunami struck. Tens of thousands were injured. Hundreds of thousands were left destitute, with no shelter, no livelihoods and no hope.

Their grief is not only wrenching, it is contagious, which may help to explain why so many Americans and others around the world have donated so much to try to help these people whose stories have been heard over and over.

It should hearten you to know that the huge amount of money sent here is being put to good use. Governments and international relief organizations have used those huge amounts to bring assistance - from simple things such as food and temporary shelter to longer-term projects such as school materials, water, sanitation, permanent shelter and things people need to reclaim their livelihoods.

I watched the launching Wednesday of 90 new fishing boats and the distribution of new fishing nets to the villagers of Davanampattinam.

There was a brass band and firecrackers, dancing and much hoopla on the beach that day. The new boats rowed back and forth full of jubilant villagers on the ocean that had wrecked their lives. It was as if to say: "We are back, ocean. You cannot destroy us all."

But many of the living will never get back their loved ones. Their loss is irreplaceable. Their grief is eternal.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor of The Sun. He has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His column usually appears Tuesdays.

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