Faith in the Face of Devastation

Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., brings research interest, pastoral counseling resources to Haiti

By Magazine Staff  |  Photographs by Ben Depp
Woman with a bible

On a sweltering afternoon in a camp for earthquake survivors, Kari O’Grady, Ph.D., pauses to interview a resident. Like every survivor the assistant professor of pastoral counseling has encountered, this woman is more than willing to share her story.

The woman, who is in her 50s, lost all her children and grandchildren in the Jan. 12 quake. Now living alone in her tent, she spends every day in bed, sobbing. She grieves for her family as she yearns for her role as mother and grandmother. “That’s who I am,” she tells O’Grady. “That’s what I did.”

In her role as researcher, counselor, and Red Cross-certified disaster relief mental health worker, O’Grady recognizes that this survivor has major depressive disorder. But she knows that the woman needs more than a diagnosis. She needs hope—and a sense of purpose.

As they talk, they discuss the grandmother’s solid belief in an afterlife. O’Grady also mentions that some of the mothers in the community could use extra help with their children. The woman listens. When O’Grady returns to the camp a few days later, she sees that the woman is caring for some of the little girls—spending time with them and braiding their hair.

There is a spark of hope.

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When an earthquake struck the hemisphere’s poorest nation in January, killing more than 230,000 people, injuring 300,000, leaving a million homeless, and crushing the fragile buildings in and around its capital into enough debris to fill five football stadiums, O’Grady began planning her trip to Haiti. But she didn’t leave immediately.

“I waited until the six-month mark, as my interest was not in the immediate crisis intervention, but in the longer-term growth period of trauma that ensues once the most immediate needs have been met,” says O’Grady, sidestepping a fracture yawning several yards into the pavement and dodging the dizzying procession of oncoming traffic one summer afternoon in Port-au-Prince. She is most drawn to what happens once the emotionally numbing state of shock gives way to the individual’s recognition of the consequences of the crisis.

Accompanied by her 18-year-old daughter, Brenna O’Grady, a behavioral science major at Southern Virginia University, and a Loyola pastoral counseling doctoral student, Deb Rollison, O’Grady visited Haiti from July 23-Aug. 5 to learn about the role spirituality plays in the lives of earthquake survivors and the volunteers helping in the relief efforts. O’Grady also offered support through a workshop to local clergy, who are often the primary mental health providers in Port-au-Prince.

“When I arrived and looked around, I thought, ‘This is not where I thought it would be,’” O’Grady says. “It was really discouraging to see how many of the people are still in the crisis situation. Still, I think it’s moved to a different stage. Initially, it’s the shock. And then there’s the numbing out, then the hope that it’s a temporary situation. But now they’re concerned that this is not at all turning out to be a temporary situation. And so we’re naturally seeing a lot more depressive as opposed to shocked cases.”

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1 Comment

  • Posted by Haiti Relief Fund | December 30, 2014

    The family members of 5 who lived beside them was killed
    during the Quake. I think the American community has a perception that
    Haiti is such an unclean location filled with experiencing.
    The color of the sea water was so blue, it negated my concept of
    Haiti being such a toxified area. The January 12th Earthquake was simply the most up to date chapter.

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