by Laurie L. Charlés PhD LMFT
AAMFT Approved Supervisor and Clinical Fellow
In Boston, in Light of the Easter Sunday Attacks in Sri Lanka
Danaa walked into my class a few minutes early Tuesday night, breathless: “Are your friends in Sri Lanka okay?” Danaa is a student in my Sociology of the Family class, a seminar with students in Boston who are mid career professionals, re-training or finishing their degrees after having families or after migrating to the U.S. from the Global South. Our conversations about family life and family issues are constantly fascinating for me because of the stories they bring from their world. I did not ever expect that the class would become so keenly sensitive to my stories, however, and to the Easter Sunday bombing that had happened in far and away Sri Lanka only two days earlier. But somehow, they had.
During the 48+hours that had passed since the attacks in Sri Lanka, which, as of this writing, has claimed the lives of hundreds of people and injured more than 500 across three cities on the island, I’d also received messages of concern from loved ones and colleagues across the globe—San Antonio, Beirut, New York City, Istanbul, Washington DC, Santiago, California, and Syria. Essentially, the message was the same: “Are your people okay?” Traumatic incidents truly reach across space and place; the patterns resonate across global barriers, connecting us. Concern for my colleagues in Sri Lanka was also what I saw on my students’ faces Tuesday night—a few minutes before I began the lecture, Andrae walked into class with the same question that Danaa had: “Are your people okay?” Like her, he didn’t wait to sit down before he asked.
I am a family therapist who, through a profound stroke of luck in a life full of good fortune, is deeply embedded in Sri Lanka. My first experience in the country was in 2010 as a Fulbright Scholar; I taught at the University of Colombo, where I am still an affiliated faculty member. Back then, I met many of the colleagues whom I now consider dear friends. Bookend that with a trip the week before Christmas in 2018, when I was there under contract with the United Nations as a “Consultant/International Master Trainer” for the United Nations Family Therapy (UNFT) Program. Our training program in the capital of Colombo was held at the Cinnamon Grand, one of the hotels where a bomb went off on Easter Sunday.
My class last night had at least two spaces and places in it: Boston and Colombo. The effects of traumatic incidents on family life had been our topic of discussion, as the week prior to the Easter Sunday attacks was “Marathon Monday” in Boston. Our class was held the day after the event, but the Marathon Monday joie de vivre was still in the air, that heady spirit of end-of-winter and almost-Spring, of the celebration of sport, endurance, and since 2013, of reflection and commemoration for those we lost and for those who survived the Boston Marathon bombing. With insider knowledge, my class discussed what it was like to be immersed in the exposure to that traumatic incident, and then, graciously, they allowed me to guide them to think viscerally about effects of traumatic incidents on individual, family, and community health, across other spaces and places. I discussed my own work in conflict affected states, including Sri Lanka but also other countries. I talked about Judith Herman’s work, how the severity of traumatic events cannot fit on a linear scale or dimension; there are complex layers of experiences and external events particular to each person, each setting, each intersection of identity and social location. This is a fit for my systemic family work, and I have found her writings invaluable as I work across the globe. Herman goes on to say that in spite of the complexity of experiences, there are common salient characteristics across the severity of traumatic events. In other words, there are patterns: Exposure to extreme violence; Physical violation or injury; Witnessing grotesque death; Sense of helplessness in the face of the event(s); threats to life or bodily integrity; a close personal encounter with violence and death; a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, threat of annihilation” (p. 33).
The students, keenly sensitive to and still freshly remembering what had happened in Boston in 2013, seemed to understand the points about how traumatic incidents, while contextual and diverse, share particular patterns. Sri Lanka had been fresh in our class discussions for another reason: I had just returned from a vacation there the week prior. Arriving back at Logan airport a day later than planned, and after being delayed over two hours upon arrival, I had barely made it to class on time. I was jetlagged, ragged, and disoriented. As I tried to do the lecture, one student raised her hand: “Is your hair blue?” I’d forgotten—a stylist I often see at Crescat Mall in Colombo, Ananda, had died some of it blue. I don’t know if it was my lecture on Sri Lanka, or my stories, or my blue hair, or something else altogether, but somehow, the students had become highly sensitized to what had happened there, to traumatic incidents beyond their own geographical home. The Easter Sunday Attacks had confirmed that their insider knowledge had indeed crossed space and place. They understood what exposure to violence could do to a person, a family, and that knowledge had opened a door, viscerally and theoretically.
At the end of Tuesday’s class, Danaa asked me a surprising question: “So, will you go to Sri Lanka?” This was a question I did not expect. I am always going to Sri Lanka! I thought to myself. I have lost count of the number of times I have been there, but it now averages more than once a year. Almost in every case, the projects are brought forward by my Sri Lankan colleagues themselves, and inspired by work we do together. I adapt to what their suggestions are, as they are the best ones to know the needs of the communities in their country, and how I can best support them. Their work also generates new questions for me; I’ve published three books with colleagues in Sri Lanka. Together, we can find so many ways to focus on how to support professionals in their capacity to support families in the context of Sri Lanka.
I answered Danaa as thoughtfully as I could: “Sri Lanka is well resourced; there are many trained people who do what I do, they are incredibly innovative and sharp and creative. So, no, I don’t expect to go.” It’s true. Most low and middle income countries face a shortage of professionals in mental health, and Sri Lanka faces that challenge as well, but they also have a robust segment of professionals working to meet that challenge head on, and they are already inside the country. Sri Lanka is a fragile state, a post conflict state, and in fragile, conflict-affected states, the government is challenged to provide direct security to its citizens and is limited in its ability to deliver basic services. However, the sophistication of the professionals who do what I do in spite of limited state capacity is incredible. It’s inspiring. Sometimes, psychosocial innovation comes from the need to be at high capacity. Sri Lankans know this intimately after the Boxing Day Tsunami, after three decades of war, and other key critical incidents of violence throughout the nation’s recent history. In fact, it has made them even more expert. As Richard Mollica put it, we can become higher in our awareness after a severe traumatic event, exquisitely sensitive to what needs to be done to reconnect the “before” and “after”, precisely because of our exposure to it.
However, I understand the meta message that is part of Danaa’s question. It is a very natural human impulse to want to intervene, to do something. This impulse is particularly powerful amongst those of us in the helping professions; I have felt it before, many times. But I don’t experience that impulse when it comes to Sri Lanka—I’ve been there too often and I’m too keenly aware of its assets, its internal and often hidden set of strengths. Although I have certainly delivered my share of trainings in Sri Lanka, I am just as likely to be the one observing, learning, while Sri Lankans are busy on the ground, as they are right now, focusing on how to support families within their context. Two days ago, I was added to a WhatsApp group for MHPSS response to the emergency; the group originates inside Sri Lanka, and its activities are managed and conducted by local people for local people. (The foreigners who were affected by the bombings in Sri Lanka seem to be supported primarily by their embassies). It is an honor to be witness to the sensitivity of our Sri Lankan colleagues, beginning the hard work to support families exposed to this traumatic violence. We experienced that in Boston, too, during the Marathon bombing, when my colleague Richard Mollica offered our clinical team a guide and set of recommendations. For everyday Sri Lankans, who have already lived through three decades of war, this current situation is painful in a new but also familiar way. Of course, I will support them any way I can. But most of all, I am proud to stand alongside them, across all of the spaces and places, as they teach me and others the way forward.
Laurie L Charlés, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., implements systemic family therapy practice in international humanitarian relief contexts, in low- and middle-income countries, and with vulnerable populations in conflict-affected states. She is the author and co-editor of several books in family therapy and qualitative research, including Family Systems and Global Humanitarian Mental Health: Approaches in the Field (2019) and Family Therapy in Global Humanitarian Contexts: Voices and Issues from the Field (2016), both with Dr. Gameela Samarasinghe, as well as the forthcoming Family Therapy Supervision in Extraordinary Settings, with Dr. Thorana Nelson. She is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and Clinical Fellow.
 Herman, J. (1997) Trauma & Recovery: The aftermath of violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. NY: Basic Books.
 For example, from April to September, 2018, I was consultant to an international NGO in Colombo, contracted to help write and develop a grassroots toolkit to be used by practitioners engaged in transitional justice work, increasing their knowledge on how/what impacts can be expected following a traumatic experience and guide them on how to engage people in storytelling and memorialization in a psychosocially sensitive manner. I’ve conducted trainings and workshops for NGOs in Sri Lanka across the years 2011-2018, in “Group Methods/Counselling” training for psychosocial workers based in north and eastern regions of post-conflict Sri Lanka; to introduce the concept of self-reflection in psychosocial work; in using Appreciative Inquiry and Richard Mollica’s “The Trauma Story” in psychosocial work with war affected communities. I’ve taught family therapy methods, interventions, and interviewing at the University of Colombo Faculty of Graduate Studies, as a Visiting Professor and a Guest Lecturer; conducted focus groups with psychosocial workers in research projects that resulted in manuals published in Tamil, Sinhala and English. I’ve been a Fulbright Scholar there twice, first in 2010 and again in 2017/2018, as a Fulbright Global Scholar in two conflict affected regions of the globe, including in Sri Lanka, where I focused on the challenges of family-focused mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) project delivery in the context of each country’s state structures and international partnerships.
 Mollica, R. (2006). Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World. Harcourt: NY
photos courtesy of Laurie Charlés