Treading Contradictions and Ambiguities

The epicenter of the earthquake that brought Haiti to her knees on January 12, 2010 is located about seven or eight miles from my childhood neighborhood of Fontamara, just outside of Port-au-Prince proper. I was leaving my office at NYU, slipping on my coat to head home, when my mother, who lives in New Jersey, called to tell me about the catastrophe. I raced out of the building, desperate to get to a television where I could hear the details of the developing story, grateful that my commute home is a mere four-minute walk. Rushing through the door with the single-minded intent of locating the remote control, I found myself immediately wading in contradictions: joyful squeals of welcome from my two young children; shock and concern from their babysitter as I breathlessly explained, “Il y a eu un tremblement de terre en Haiti! Un sept!” [There was an earthquake in Haiti! A seven!]; a sense of relief as I heard my husband walking through the door; annoyance while I strained to focus on the television while my son begged me to change the channel back to his cartoon, my daughter petitioning to be nursed and cuddled.

Though I live with the contradictions and tensions of being a full-time, tenure-track, working mother and wife every day, on January 12, the competition felt especially violent and unforgiving. As seconds turned into minutes and hours while news about family members slowly trickled in, I would step into more contradictions. By 6:30 pm on the day of the quake, I had communicated via Skype with my cousin-frère [cousin brother], one of the three cousins whose parents raised me in Haiti while my mother worked in the US, and been assured that he was safe. By midnight, I had confirmation that his parents, whom I call Maman and Papa, our other brother and his son, as well as my mother’s sisters and their families had survived and were not injured. Meanwhile my Facebook page, email inbox, and voicemail were flush with stories of people who had not yet heard from relatives or, worse — had received news of their deaths. So each moment of good news for my family was buttressed with multiple moments of mourning the bad news of others and grieving for my beloved country.

I tell my story because, as I have looked for ways to make sense of my experience, of the unforgiving contradictions that have haunted my days and nights in the aftermath of the earthquake, I have noticed parallel contradictions among fellow Haitians in the Diaspora and in Haiti. From the scholars, who, like myself, have been called upon to comment and analyze in ways that require at least some measure of distance and objectivity when all we really want to do is weep, to the parents looking for ways to explain the incomprehensible to their children, to survivors questioning their good fortune, the contradictions abound. But perhaps the most compelling dissonance, at least for me, has to do with the struggle to make sense of this earthquake as part of a public conversation. The narratives of hope, rebirth, and rebuilding that surface amidst media images of orphaned children, mass graves, and unmitigated destruction are one response to what family therapist Pauline Boss has termed ambiguous loss — specifically, the variant of ambiguous loss known as “Leaving without good-bye.” In this scenario, the loved one is psychologically present but physically absent: examples include soldiers missing in action and abducted children.

The power of ambiguous loss lies in the uncertainty it produces. The literature on grief and bereavement shows that closure is a characteristic feature of the mourning process. Even when death happens unexpectedly, as in the case of a fatal accident, the rites and rituals that accompany loss (wakes, funerals, sitting shivah, spreading ashes) help those left behind to make peace with the sudden absence of a loved one. Boss writes about how family dynamics are put in disequilibrium by ambiguous loss. I would add that in situations like the earthquake that rocked Haiti on January 12, the disequilibrium is also collective, so the rituals we use to heal from this terrible tragedy ought to be collective as well. In many ways, the overwhelming desire to redeem the devastating and ambiguous losses leveled by the earthquake is a form of collective mourning.

The dynamics of such collective response, however, are made even more complex in light of a less theorized concept that Boss likewise deserves credit for developing — ambiguous gain. As the name suggests, this refers to an event or experience that is mostly positive, such as the birth of a child or a graduation that nonetheless marks an ending and represents entry into unknown territory. How does a mother celebrate surviving an earthquake that has left her homeless, without shelter for her young children? How does a brother celebrate escaping injury when he knows his sister will never walk again? How do members of the Diaspora come to terms with their own relative safety and security while their fellow Haitians are sleeping outside, reliving the trauma of the earthquake with every aftershock (more than 50 and counting)? And how do I make peace with my intense gratitude for every one of my family members whose lives were spared when thousands upon thousands have died? These contradictions of ambiguous gain and ambiguous loss in the Haitian experience compel us to dream of a brighter future with a renewed resolve to once again change the course of history, to no longer be defined by narrow labels that diminish our collective humanity: mystical boat people from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, a nation plagued by AIDS. May we bury these labels, which take away personhood and actively reconstruct an ambiguous loss of self, beneath the rubble as a collective ritual of rebirth.

Fabienne Doucet is an assistant professor of early childhood education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at NYU Steinhardt. She is working on a book about the educational experiences of Haitian youth and their families in Boston, tentatively entitled On the Edge of Hope.

fabienne doucet