On the Frontlines of the Ebola Response: An Inside Look at a Program to Help the Grieving

Posted by Tim Callaghan
August 21, 2014
A Liberian Woman Holds up a Pamphlet With Guidance on How to Prevent the Ebola Virus From Spreading

In Liberia, a country gripped by Ebola, the outbreak has not only taken its toll on health care workers but also on the professionals who comfort the grieving.

“The outbreak of Ebola was very shocking and overwhelming to our country,” said Jestina Hoff, a counselor with the Liberian Red Cross.  “It brought a lot fear.”

The outbreak has also hampered Hoff’s ability to do her job."  As a counselor, I talk to parents who lost a child or to someone who has gotten sick with the virus,” said Hoff.  “They are feeling so discouraged, and I have to help them accept the situation and comfort them, but without touching them.”

Francesca Crabu, a clinical psychologist with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), explained that having close contact with those who are grieving is key to providing psychosocial support.  But in Liberia and other parts of Western Africa, preventative measures require people to stay at arm’s length from each other.

“Here in Liberia, it is very painful that you cannot shake hands.  If somebody is dying I cannot hug you,” said Crabu.

To make matters worse, once Ebola claims a life, the body is taken immediately, before families have time to mourn their loss, according to Eliza Yee-lai Cheung, a clinical psychologist with the Hong Kong Red Cross.

“They cannot hold a memorial service or burial according to their culture,” said Cheung.  “That’s why it’s very hard for them.”

To give psychosocial counselors the tools to help grieving communities, the USAID Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) is partnering with IFRC in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city.  Among other things, the DART and IFRC are working to raise public awareness of Ebola’s mode of transmission, teach disease prevention practices to communities, and train health workers and volunteers.

In a classroom, 19 people -- counselors with the Liberian Red Cross, staff with NGOs and social workers with the Liberian Ministry of Health & Social Welfare -- are learning from Crabu and Cheung how to organize culturally appropriate activities to help families cope with their loss.  They are also taught ways to keep themselves safe from the virus and how to provide support to each other.  This group will then go on to train others in affected communities with the hopes that such efforts will help the country come to grips with Ebola.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Hoff."  But we have a goal. I have a goal.  We have to serve our country.  We need somebody to take a step to help others move forward.  It’s scary, but there’s hope.”

About the Author: Tim Callaghan serves as the USAID Ebola Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears on USAID's ImpactBlog.

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