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I am here to hear your story

A student and an expert on ambiguous loss reach out in the wake of a triple disaster

Tomoko Ogasawara was preparing to finish a big paper for a research course one Friday morning. Then she opened her email to a flood of messages.

It was March 11, 2011. Half a world away in her home country of Japan, an earthquake had shattered the north end of the island and unleashed a tsunami. Within hours, thousands were missing or dead and the nation was paralyzed. The natural disasters were soon eclipsed by a nuclear disaster from damaged reactors.

earthquake had shattered the north end of the island
Ogasawara documented the devastation where she
volunteered in summer 2011.
Photo courtesy Tomoko Ogasawara

“Seeing those images,” says Ogasawara, “I had a broken heart.”

About 30 of the University’s 200 Japanese students, scholars, and staff came to a hastily arranged meeting to share information and support each other.

Ogasawara, a doctoral student in family social science, emerged as an informal leader in the group, partly due to her background as a therapist.

“Of course we all were wondering, ‘What can I do?’” she says. “For me the disaster was a personal experience, but it was also a communal and collective one.”

In the first weeks, returning to Japan was impossible. But Ogasawara found an avenue to carry out relief work in Japan over the summer. She was invited to join a multidisciplinary health team and deployed to Miyagi prefecture, where nearly 64,000 had been evacuated, more than 7,000 had been confirmed dead, and thousands were still missing.

Team members searched for pregnant women, provided child-rearing counseling, and reached out to local professionals who were survivors supporting survivors. One group worked to set up a health café in the temporary housing area to create community where it had been destroyed. Mental health counseling was an unfamiliar concept, but Ogasawara and her team members adapted.

“When we said to people, ‘I am here to hear your story—would you like to talk?’ then they began to share with us,” she says.

Ambiguous Loss

In Japan, Ogasawara made connections with professionals from all over Japan and the world, deployed to organize the immediate and then long-term response.

A name kept coming up: Pauline Boss, professor emerita in Ogasawara’s own Department of Family Social Science. Boss’s 1999 book, Ambiguous Loss, had been translated into Japanese by sociologist Koji Minamiyama, and now an article about her post-9/11 work was also available.

“In the very first hours after the disaster, I had thought of the work of Dr. Boss,” says Ogasawara. Boss, who has trained professionals around the world about ambiguous loss for four decades, immediately began sending her resources and contacts.

“When it comes to loss—clear or ambiguous—human beings are more alike in their responses than different. But how they grieve is different. What everyone needs to know is that others care about their loss, and that they are not alone in their suffering.” —Pauline Boss

Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous loss can occur in two main types: when there is physical absence and psychological presence—as when there is no body to bury—or when there is physical presence and psychological absence—as in cases of dementia, addictions, or other chronic illness.

Minamiyama connected Ogasawara to nursing professor Noriko Setou, who was organizing the Japan Disaster Grief Support Project. Setou asked for help in bringing Boss and her expertise to Japan.

“Now is the time to focus on grief and loss,” Setou told Ogasawara.

Boss couldn’t travel to Japan, so Setou and three colleagues decided to come to her. Ogasawara helped them coordinate a trip to Minnesota for intensive training over four days this March.

They had studied the theories and brought real-life case studies. Now Boss and her colleagues worked with them, covering the latest research on ambiguous loss and related topics, from disenfranchised and anticipatory grief to cultural views, gender differences, and the myth of closure.

“Professor Boss’s lectures and suggestions were impressive,” says Setou. “With the case studies, she helped us truly understand what is necessary to help people overcome their difficulties.”

earthquake had shattered the north end of the island
Members of the Japan Disaster Grief Support Project
and their hosts, left to right: psychiatrist Satomi
Nakajima, family social science department head
Jan McCulloch, nursing professor and team leader
Noriko Setou, professor emerita Pauline Boss, social
welfare professor Kayoko Kurokawa, marriage and family
therapist Chikako Ishii, and doctoral student Tomoko
Ogasawara. Photo by Amanda Costello

Boss was also impressed by Setou’s collaborative project among professionals from so many disciplines—nursing, psychiatry, social work, and family therapy—and by the group’s knowledge, intellect, and dedication to helping their fellow citizens.

“My experience was very moving,” says Boss. “Their losses are both painfully clear and ambiguous, as so many loved ones were washed away. I was deeply honored that they came here for my training.”

Ogasawara translated steadily throughout the five days. “Excitement, exhaustion,” she says, describing the experience, “but with almost no stress.”

Learning from Japan

The group prepared to return home in time to mark the somber anniversary of the earthquake. Ceremonies were televised nationwide; though important, Setou reported, they distressed many survivors and brought back memories.

The Japan Disaster Grief Support Project immediately began to hold training sessions. Boss is confident that their interventions, now culturally adapted, will help ease the stress and grief of the people.

A year after the quake, more than 3,000 were still missing and 6,000 recovering from injuries. More than 15,000 had perished. Evacuees numbered a staggering 342,000.

In the Tohoku region, famous for its springtime cherry blossoms, half of the population now lives apart from family members with whom they lived before the disaster. An estimated one-third of families live apart from their children.

While Japan’s social norms have not broken down, the biggest challenges include sustaining support for those who need long-term or ongoing care. Understanding ambiguous loss and how to treat it most effectively and compassionately is a critical piece in a national strategy.

Boss emphasizes the importance of young scholars and professionals. “They have the energy to go into disaster areas and carry on the work,” she says. “Tomoko’s group started a coffee house—I love this intervention, which turned out to be therapeutic, as well. Such innovative ideas are essential…and they often come from younger scholars. They see fresh approaches for applying theory. They know the culture and have the energy and intellect to shape old interventions into new ways.”

Tomoko Ogasawara’s doctoral research now has a clear focus. Her dissertation will focus on how survivor families can talk about their traumatic experiences, losses, and grief with each other as well as in the community.

“Pauline Boss truly made me proud of being a family therapist, with her integrity of being a woman, a clinician, a mother, a wife, and a researcher…I really felt it a privilege and blessing to witness all that took place here.” —Tomoko Ogasawara

“I found myself almost prepared for helping those affected people in Japan— strangely, though—after all these years of study and training in the United States,” she reflects.

She hopes to be interviewing and working with them in the affected communities this summer. Her Japanese colleagues will be there, too.

Members of the visiting team received news in April that they had received a major government grant to support interventions in the affected areas. Learn more about the Japan Disaster Grief Support Project (Japanese-language website).

Story by Gayla Marty | Spring / Summer 2012

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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