On the morning of December 26, 2004, shortly after the sun rose over the Andaman Sea, three killer waves swept over the southwestern shores of Thailand, swallowing—and spitting back out—5,385 people. Thousands more vanished completely in the sea. As this was happening, I was miles up in the air, returning from a pilgrimage in India to northern Thailand, my home for the previous two and a half years. A few hours earlier, I had sat in the Bangkok airport, awaiting a connecting flight, as planeloads of tourists seeking fun, relaxation, and novelty took off for the coastal resorts that now lay in watery ruins. The first images I had of the devastation unrolled on my TV screen later that day in the lakeside town of Phayao, where my husband and I were living during our sabbatical.
There were shots of bikini-clad corpses on beaches and stunned survivors frantically searching among them for loved ones. Video clips showed demolished homes and hotels, capsized fishing boats, crushed cars, and acres of debris. Seawater still gushed from broken storefront windows and down streets and alleys. The Indian Ocean tsunami turned out to be one of the most devastating natural disasters in recorded history, leaving an estimated 227,898 dead, 125,000 injured, 45,752 missing, and 1.69 million displaced over a 22,540-square-mile area. In that idyllic tropical setting, the day after Christmas, who could have imagined that “this will be the day that I die.”
The next morning, I got a call from a rabbi friend in Bangkok who had hurled himself into the disaster relief effort. As he described the tragedies unfolding in the wake of the tsunami, it occurred to me that I could provide psychological support to survivors and told him I would fly to the southern beach city of Phuket. At the time, there were just 40 to 50 psychiatrists in all of Thailand and the Phuket International Hospital, inundated with traumatized and wounded survivors, had no designated psychiatric ward. When I arrived, the one resident Thai psychiatrist had barely slept since the tsunami struck a few days earlier, so I offered to cover for him while he rested. “Are you sure?” he asked and proceeded to pile dozens of charts onto my outstretched arms.
For the next two days and nights, I went from room to room, visiting patients and hearing survivors’ stories as nurses and doctors came in and out, delivering painkillers, changing IVs and catheters, and conducting pre- and post-op consultations. Embassy officials were frequent visitors, too, arranging medical transport for wounded tourists who had no clothing, passports, or money. Whether groggy from medication, panicked from trauma, or alert with anticipation, most patients were eager to tell their stories. “We were waiting for our omelets when . . . ” “I was playing with my children when . . . ” “I was riding a motorbike when . . . ” They described terror and chaos—people running, yelling, hurling themselves into trees or holding on to railings they prayed wouldn’t collapse. And then—the realization of who was missing and what was destroyed. I listened carefully to each story, aware of the teller’s need to narrate the details of the experience, with all of its attendant confusion, pain, and disbelief. I could feel each one trying to piece together the events, like a puzzle, one memory at a time.
For the previous 18 months, I had been living at forest monasteries in Thailand, where I had learned to recite the short, straightforward daily reflection on impermanence: “All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” The reflection, similar to ones I practice every Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, helps awaken us to the harsh realities of life but also to its transcendent and eternal qualities. We’re forced to think about where and what our refuge is. What can we rely on? Our worldly pursuits inevitably end in sorrow; acquisitions in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; birth in death. These facts—the irrefutable laws of nature—took on a visceral meaning as I met with those facing sudden, irrevocable loss.
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