After APS: How do you counsel a grieving mother?

Written by  Published by:Shiite News
Published in Pakistan
Wednesday, 16 December 2015

PESHAWAR: The last time Seema Bibi talked to her husband, she had asked him, “Why is my child not here?”

It was the Qul of her only son, Fahid Ahmed, who lost his life in the Army Public School (APS) carnage.

Seema saw a number of children there, alive and moving about, and asked her husband, Hussain Nawab, where Fahid had disappeared.

“She has not spoken since December 19,” Hussain says quietly.

On Dec 16 last year, Hussain, a Frontier Corps (FC) soldier, left in the morning for his duty at Loweri pass, between the Chitral and Dir districts. Fahid went to school, and a few hours later, his dead body was brought back.

"At that time, my wife was alone at home; she spent almost six hours all by herself with his body," Ahmed remembers, his voice choking and tears on his face.

Hussain was numb with grief — his son was also his best friend. But matters took a turn for the worse when he saw his wife's condition. In the initial months, she would beat herself up and throw her body against the walls. She caused herself injuries that led to the loss of speech and hearing. Hussain took her to several doctors but there was little improvement in her state; she could only be stabilised by tranquilisers.

Hussain now uses metal chains and ropes to tie up her hands and legs, so she does not hurt herself. He cannot sleep and worries for Seema’s deteriorating mental health.

“She couldn’t bear the loss,” he says. “She has lost her mind.”

Severe trauma

A year after the deadly attack, survivors and parents of the deceased children are experiencing severe trauma. Medical experts say that the APS massacre has deeply affected the medical health of parents and survivors.

Hours after the attack, parents rushed to the school and the hospital, only to be confronted with ruthless bloodshed.

“It is not easy for them to forget the sight,” says Dr Rauf Khattak, who heads the Casualty Department at Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), Peshawar. Majority of the survivors, he explains, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Recurring memories from the day and its aftermath lead to sleeplessness, disbelief and fear.

Dr Mukhtar, who provides counselling to the bereaved families at LRH’s psychiatric department, believes that the process will be slow. “Overcoming the trauma will take time,” he says, explaining that most of these families consist of ordinary people: students and parents who had never imagined such bloodshed at school, but have been forced to confront it and live with it.

Long-term counselling

Medicine, however, is not a permanent solution to trauma. “We normally advise anti-depression and anti-anxiety drugs,” Dr Mukhtar explains. “But the real solution is long-term counselling.”

After the attack, the KP government established a trauma centre at LRH to rehabilitate the surviving students and parents, especially mothers. Three teams of foreign experts, including one from America, visited Peshawar to provide counselling.

A counselling team from LRH visits the house of Malik Hassan Tahir once a week. Tahir and his brother both survived the deadly attack on their school, and are suffering from PTSD.

But Malik says that counselling is difficult and has not helped him. Part of the counselling process requires talking about the APS attack, which refreshes horrible memories.

Instead of coping with his grief, Tahir says he remembers the day’s images more vividly: the attack, the bloodshed, the crying of students in pain, the sound of the ambulance sirens.

Coping with grief

Dr Mukhtar says that patients need their attention diverted from the attack, to healthy everyday activities like sports. “We have to avoid talking about APS if we want to bring them back to a normal life,” he says.

Between the parents, a larger number of mothers face PTSD. But their coping mechanisms fuel their damage. They still live in the same houses, and a lot of mothers report regularly visiting their dead children’s rooms, which brings back painful memories.

Ahmed Ali, who teaches psychology, feels this hampers their recovery process. “In such a situation, survivors cannot focus or concentrate on anything. They can hardly sleep at night,” he says.

He adds that in usually trauma scenarios, family and friend support is crucial in helping the patient overcome their fears. In the case of APS, however, entire families are sometimes affected and grieving together.

Another APS student, Ahmed, still remembers being inside the APS auditorium the militants barged into. First came the bullets. Then two armed men — one in a white outfit — burst inside the auditorium and began firing indiscriminately, he recalls.

The APS auditorium building, where the militants first burst in on Dec 16, 2015. –Photo by the author

“The sound of my friends crying, and the bullets hitting everywhere still echoes in my ears,” he says. His voice breaks, and he stops talking. After a pause he continues: “I cannot forget that day.”

Every day is December 16

Seema now lies unconscious on a bed inside a cramped room, her hands outside the blanket, wrapped in a padlocked metal chain. She has been injected by tranquilisers. “Her mental health is worsening with time,” says Hussain. He injects her with the required amount of tranquilisers before leaving for his duty in Malakand.

Her hands are tied because she is difficult to handle when she starts crying. “She starts scratching herself with nails,” he says. An open rope lies next to her, and medicine bottles crowd her side-table. “Most of the time we tie up her legs to avoid mishaps.”

The deadly attack has completely ruined his family. Hussain laments his state; he has forgotten how to smile, or what happiness feels like. Having lost his only son, each day is now gripped with the fear of also losing his wife.

Every time I see her lying on the bed, I feel as I did on that day," he shares. "Every day is December 16."

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