What India can learn from the US school shootings

"This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we'll tell them that we love them and we'll remind each other how deeply we love one another. But there are families in Connecticut who cannot do that tonight. And they need all of us right now.''

That was Barack Obama speaking more as a parent and a sensitive human being than as the President of the United States, a few hours after the terrible shooting in Connecticut, that killed 28 people, 20 of them children.

President Obama's televised pain and tears connected with the average American parent, shocked and traumatised by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown.

A mother consoles her grieving child at a memorial service for victims of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on Saturday. Reuters

The immediate focus of course was on the details of the tragedy, which are still unfolding. There was talk about how the incident is a wake-up call to the Obama administration on the need to revisit its gun control law, and that it is time for the President to bite the bullet.

Another huge concern was how to help those who suffered: parents who had lost their little ones and the young children who had witnessed the horrific happenings and been traumatised by it. What do you say to the parents? Should you ask the children the details of what they saw, to understand what they may have witnessed? Should you discuss what happened and its consequences with the children, to help them cope with it and know that it is over, they are now safe? Or should you simply divert the attention of the child, so that they can move on, hopefully without being scarred by the experience?

The worst tragedy at a school in American history took me back to how India had responded to what was perhaps its worst tragedy in a school. The fire trap at Sri Krishna Primary School in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district in July 2004, in which 94 children, in the same age group, between five and 10, were charred to death. I remember visiting Kumbakonam soon after the tragedy. The scene was tragic, gruesome. Long afterwards, it was as though I could still hear the heartwrenching wailing and screaming of the hapless children and the inconsolable grief of their shell-shocked parents as they watched helplessly.

Somehow, every time a huge tragedy like that happens in India, we seem far from sensitive to the psychological impact on the minds and lives of those affected. The victims become objects to parade before television cameras, to deliver soundbites, and provide melodrama of grief, almost as though packaged for television. The desperation of the victims and their helplessness, not really knowing what to do, how to do, they seem to get `used' and forgotten. While the rest of the world and the media move on to the next big news happening, they are left to cope, alone, with their grief.

I revisited Kumbakonam one year later. There was one little girl about 10, who had lost her younger brother in the tragedy. She hardly spoke. She was withdrawn, reticent. Only after I had spent a few hours with the family did the girl make eye contact. The mother said every single night after the tragedy, the girl had nightmares and she got up screaming, terrified, crying. She had been a bright, cheerful girl, a class topper but now getting her interested or engaged with lessons, classes and friends was far from easy. The child had moved to a new school, and with a mother and family who were crying and grieving everyday for a loss they could not deal with, it was not easy for anyone. Her teacher told me the child needed help. So did most of the other children who had come from Sri Krishna school.

In fact, every family I met needed help, I thought: counselling and some handholding to gain the mental strength to move on. One family had lost both their children. Another, their only son. It had been a year since the deaths but the pain and grief they were carrying was as though the loss had happened only a day earlier. The wounds were as raw. One mother was going everyday to the graveyard to sit by her child and talk to him. Another was offering milk and food, morning and evening to the photograph of her son. She told me her little son "can't bear hunger", so she must feed him before anyone in the house eats a meal. She was speaking of him in the present tense, not as though it was all a matter of the past. She wouldn't allow anyone to move his books, toys, school uniform, not even his footwear. She was living in the illusion that her son was alive and with her, and no one seemed to have the heart to break her out of it. They were doing the same thing.

One father had stopped going to work after his only son died. The husband and wife were grieving 24x7, cooped up inside their home, in severe depression. They saw no reason for themselves to live, no purpose, no motivation to work or earn their living. I couldn't stop myself from telling them that they must move on. "For what?" they asked. I had no answer.

When I went to the local graveyard where the children had been buried, there was evidence to show that to almost each of them, there had been a recent visitor. Chocolates, a favourite snack, a dress, jasmine flowers, whatever the mother knew her child loved had been brought to offer at the place where what remained of the child had been put to rest. At some places there were photographs and at some others, a drawing or painting of the child's face.

To the credit of the officer who was heading the district administration at that time, a doctor-turned-bureaucrat, there was realisation that consoling the parents with a clinical "pat on the shoulder, a hug, and a few words of sympathy and support"  would not be enough. J Radhakrishnan, now Tamil Nadu's Health Secretary who was district collector of Thanjavur during the tragedy, recalls that professional counsellors were drafted to deal with the post-disaster trauma and help the healing process. To the administration's credit, it was not mechanically suggested to parents - who had lost their children and who had undergone a family planning operation - that they should adopt a child. Initiatives were undertaken taken to provide medical help, even recanalization to reverse the operation. The effect was also beautiful to see. The few families that welcomed a new biological child seemed to have been able to begin life afresh. Sensitivity and support had given them a new lease of life.

"The trauma continues to this day. In fact, since the trial still continues in court, parents get emotional about the loss during court hearing or on the anniversary of the tragedy. A Victims Parents' Association was formed, which to this day helps parents cope with emotional lows,'' says Radhakrishnan.

The maximum number of casualties (13) was reported from Natham village near Kumbakonam. All children from this habitation used to travel to the school in Kumbakonam since the village had no school and Sri Krishna School used to operate a vehicle from Natham. The government decided to start a school in Natham immediately with proper safety measures to correct the wrong.

In Natham, I met a mother who was coping not just with the death of her child but also ignominy because villagers were saying she had "accepted'' compensation of Rs 1 lakh  after her child's death. The barbs, as though she had traded her child's life for the money, were stinging. "Will any mother say you can take my child's life and give me money instead,'' she asked, swearing on the village Goddess that she had not taken a rupee of compensation money. How cruel can we get, I had asked myself.

That kind of brash insensitivity is not uncommon though. I remember a recent fire at a slum on the outskirts of Hyderabad in which children had died. There was the usual TV coverage, VIP visits, announcement of ex-gratia. When more questions were asked about why this had happened, whose mistake, why so many mishaps, the bureaucratic answer was "Compensation announce kar diya na, aur kya chahiye?"

Lessons learnt at Kumbakonam came in handy during the tsunami in December 2004, when the Tamil Nadu government ensured psychologists from NIMHANS and other trained health workers put in place an exhaustive plan to dynamically deal with the trauma of dealing with so many deaths. Teams would visit 25 homes in different habitations everyday, screen the cases and found that 20 per cent of the population had to be referred to other health centres and 3 per cent of the cases needed urgent psychiatric help.

Watching America deal with the school shootout tragedy, India needs to learn that all tragedies - be it a rail or road accident, a bomb blast or those like Kumbakonam or a tsunami - need to be dealt with with a more human face. As Obama says, it is important to hug and tell your near and dear ones that we love each other. And to support those who have just lost that very loved one.

Updated Date: Dec 16, 2012 11:59 AM

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