The youngest victim of the earthquake that has plagued central Italy this hot and painful summer for the Italian nation, was only eight months. The infant died right after the arrival of the ambulance, which was supposed to rescue him. His eight-year-old brother left Accumoli and the world too. They lived in a house next to the church, whose bell tower collapsed and killed the entire family. Unfortunately, they are not the only innocent beings to have lost their lives in this – only apparently natural – disaster. Many children stopped breathing under the rubble. Marisol Piermarini, 18 months, is one of them. Her mother had miraculously escaped the last earthquake in L’Aquila, and found herself forced to face this terrible ordeal. In Amatrice two 7-year-old twins died embracing each other. Their names were Simon and Andrew Serafini.
The list is very long, pain is endless, and it would be unfair to remember some of them and forget the others. There are also children who survived, but lost a brother or a sister, their grandparents or even parents, remaining alone. Such is Giorgia Rinaldo’s case, a four-year-old girl, rescued alive after 17 hours of search, while her 9-year-old sister did not make it. Even the luckiest ones, who were saved along with their families, but will be left with the signs of this trauma forever. The existential damage, in some cases, might surface years later.
The earthquake is like a bombing, and children who experienced it are like war victims. Some injuries to the soul will never mend. And the trauma can be so profound as to be visible only after a long time and cause physical and psychological illnesses or social dysfunctions. The president of the Italian Emergency Society (Sipem), Christian Dentione, said that the most common feelings among children affected by the earthquake are: fear, anxiety, anguish, panic, and anger. “Early intervention is the key to prevent the crystallization of the symptoms, which can lead to somatic, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems,” said the specialist.
“Save the Children” has released a set of guidelines for protecting children in emergencies: not allowing them to stay for a long time in front of the television; carefully listen to them; comfort them and reassure them; get help fro experts; expect all sorts of things, recognize reactive behavior of any kind; devote them time and attention not to make them feel not alone; be a positive behavior model; learn emergency and transform the catastrophic event in life experience functional to growth; help them return to normal life activities; encourage them to help other people who are in need. In tent camps, developmental experts are taking care of the children who survived the earthquake, trying to help them slowly get back to normal life.
In Terris has thoroughly studied this question together with a child psychiatrist, Angela Magazù, medical director of the Company Matera Local health.
Dr. Magazù, care for children affected by the earthquake is divided, I guess, in different phases and interventions, from emergency to a return to ordinary life. What are the actions to be taken step by step?
“Children should be gradually brought back to everyday life. It does not mean that they have to behave like nothing happened. We have to make sure they resume a normal life, with games, study, and affective ties. Children ask questions and they should receive correct and comprehensible answers, according to their ability to understand. There is no canonical, loanable time to take action. In the emergency phase, the first 15-20 days, we need to create spaces and activities for them, even to play, play and recreation, to offer them a possibility to express their feelings and thoughts, so that the catastrophic images do not take root in their mind. For example, through drawing, which functions as psychological therapy. It is a way to express and get rid of negative fantasies or persistent bad memories.”
The situation of those who are saved together with the family and children, however, who have been orphaned or have lost a close relative, is different…
“Everyone needs to be accompanied back to a normal life. Children who have lost a loved person, or even one or both parents, need to be reassured that they will not be left alone, that there will be someone they trust who will take care of them, helping them to deal with the pain and the emptiness of the loss, through the experience of someone known, a friend, who has experienced the same grief. We have to reassure them emotionally and even physically, giving them the certainty that they will have a home and someone who will take care of them in life.”
What are the risks of a possible damage, also depending on age?
“The younger their age, the heavier the physical and behavioral disorders they may experience. Until eight years or so, children who have suffered stress develop sleep disorders, restlessness, and loss of appetite. In children who are older, the disorders are usually of a different kind, affective-emotional in their nature, with feelings of fear, anguish, and anger over what happened, anxiety for the future. Starting from the age of 12, prevail catastrophic memories and the feeling of living in a dangerous world. In adolescence, young people rationalize without any kind of defence; they build an image of life and of the world that affects them later on, when they become adults.”
What are the signs of trauma in the near and long term, and how do we have to handle it?
“Post-traumatic stress symptoms arise immediately, but can be defined as a disorder only after twenty days, a month or so. As I have already said, they have sleep, eating, and behavioral disorders, sadness, apathy or restlessness, anger, fear and distress. The difference lies in the persistence of these symptoms, which, in normal conditions, dwindle in the following twenty days. If they persist longer and have the same intensity, or even worsen, it is an actual disorder, which needs to be treated by developmental psychology specialists, not volunteers, teachers, or social workers. In very rare, particularly compromised cases, they even resort to drugs. Usually, the aid is psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral, through storytelling, verbal or through drawing, which facilitates the elaboration of the traumatic experience.”
How shall we behave with children who have lost a family member or even their mother and/or father in this earthquake? How can we communicate with them and what shall we do?
“Communication should ideally come from other family members, in a careful and delicate manner, through words that can be understood even on a deep, emotional level. We must immediately convey the certainty that the loss of the loved one is not the beginning of anything, it is not the irretrievable tragedy of their life. The child is not alone, (s)he will not be alone, everything is not lost. This is the message we have to transmit the child who is experiencing mourning. It is a long process that caregivers of the child must be ready to face. A path that does not end in a month, but a lifetime commitment. There will be times of desperation, difficulties, and better moments of hope.”