NAIROBI, Kenya – Some family members of Kenyan students killed in an attack on a college by Islamic militants have sobbed, while others stayed silent. Some boiled with bitterness; others found solace in bittersweet memories of the dead. The mother of one student gunned down at Garissa University College considered suicide until counselors talked her out of it.
Different expressions of grief have played out this week at a morgue in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, sometimes in full view as family members emerge in shock and hysteria from a doorway after seeing the corpse of a cherished son or daughter, and sometimes in the relative privacy of tents where counselors lean forward and murmur words of consolation to the distraught.
These counselors are among the unsung heroes in the aftermath of the worst attack by Islamic extremists on Kenyan soil in almost 17 years, sometimes sharing the trauma of relatives of the dead as they unburden themselves or weep in their arms.
"You have to be there," whether it means embracing a grieving parent, talking or just being present without saying anything, said Sammy Mwangi, a worker with the Kenya Red Cross.
A small army of counselors, many wearing Kenya Red Cross vests, were deployed to the Chiromo Funeral Parlour to lend support to relatives of some of the 148 people killed in the April 2 attack by al-Shabab, a Somalia-based extremist group. The morgue operation was winding down on Friday as bodies were handed over to families for burial after they were identified.
It was intense and sometimes exhausting for counselors to help family members traumatized by the sudden, violent death of young men and women in whom they had invested scarce resources for their education. Many relatives traveled from small towns and villages for hours by bus to reach Nairobi, and were overwhelmed at first by their unfamiliar surroundings.
Mwangi said Thursday that he had counseled up to 30 people a day, ranging from groups of 10 to a single individual.
"Sometimes, I get overwhelmed. But as a counselor, I'm trained to deal with that," he said, adding that he and his colleagues discussed the challenges of their work in a debriefing session at the end of each trying day.
"I feel lighter when I share it. I feel it's not my burden," Mwangi said.
He recalled a case of a woman from Busia, near the Uganda border, who lost her sister in the Garissa attack and had to sell a chicken to raise bus fare for her first trip to Nairobi to identify the body. She arrived without a change of clothes and on the first day, "she couldn't even speak" because she was so upset, Mwangi said. As the days went by, she grew calmer, but suffered a "double tragedy" when one of her relatives was killed in a car accident while heading to join her in the capital, according to the counselor.
Margaret Kenyatta, the wife of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, visited the Chiromo morgue this week and was escorted by Red Cross officials and an entourage of men in dark suits around the grounds. Hands clasped, she showed no reaction when a woman was helped out of the morgue building, wailing and weeping. Margaret Kenyatta later signed a mortuary book with the inscription: "Deepest Condolences! Kenyans' unity in these trying times is truly heartening."
Red Cross counselor Sheila Munene has talked to about 50 relatives in the past week. Sometimes, those grieving are so upset that all one can do initially is to let them weep and perhaps offer water, and eventually encourage them to think that '"somebody somewhere cares for me,'" she said.
"Crying is a relieving therapy," said Munene, who recalled a case of a mother who said she wanted to kill herself after learning her son died at Garissa. The mother, who has two younger children, abandoned that plan after being told: "'Think about the two children who are left behind. What are you going to do with them?'"
Munene said she had her own difficulties after the first counseling sessions, with visions of bodies traversing her mind at night.
"God, what is happening to me?" she remembered thinking, though her mood improved after discussing her stress with colleagues.
A woman whose cousin, 23-year-old Jacob Bushuru, was killed by al-Shabab said she benefited from talking to counselors.
"The best thing to do is to understand, to accept what has happened," said the woman, Phanice Lijodi. "They allow you to cry, they allow you to absorb the reality, the truth. And that, I saw, quickens healing."