An Ebola widow struggles to cope with her loss

Published: 23 March 2015 13:02 CET

Walter Leung, Hong Kong branch of the Red Cross Society of China

Losing a family member is difficult, but when that loss is coupled with isolation and uncertainty about the future, a difficult time can become even more challenging.

Such was the case for Agnes, a mother of four boys and one girl, who lost her husband to the Ebola virus disease. The family lives in Foya district in northern Liberia, bordering Guinea and Sierra Leone. Agnes’ husband was a health care worker who contracted the highly contagious disease after coming into direct contact with an infected patient from Guinea. He passed away, leaving a family behind without an income earner.

As in other instances, anyone coming into close contact with someone suffering from Ebola needs to be isolated and monitored for 21 days, the incubation period for the disease. Agnes’ children were prohibited from going to school, and Agnes herself was at a loss as to how she could support her family. The family was ostracized by their community and neighbourhood; Agnes could not reach out to her own family, and others refused to accept her money and purchase food on her behalf for fear they would catch the disease.

With rumours and fear running rampant, they were a family shut off from everyone, aside from health workers and volunteers with the Liberian Red Cross Society.

“Understandably, Agnes was very depressed, dealing with the impact of the loss of her husband, the social isolation she and her family were feeling, and the uncertainties of raising a family on her own,” said Walter Leung, emergency health delegate, Hong Kong branch of the Red Cross Society of China. “Red Cross volunteers immediately provided a survival kit which included both food and non-food items. We helped them work through their pain by developing a trusting relationship with the family, and provided some much needed psychosocial support.”

It was a difficult and challenging process. As this was the first time Ebola had surfaced in Liberia, health care workers and communities alike were not familiar with the ways of coping with the outbreak. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a revised emergency appeal of 24.5 million Swiss francs to support 4.5 million people who were either directly affected or at risk of being affected by the Ebola virus disease. Activities include increasing the ability of the Liberian Red Cross Society to respond to such outbreaks through the training of thousands of volunteers. A key focus of the training is to ensure volunteers can identify the symptoms of Ebola, and are mobilized to promote factual information to communities about how to prevent the disease from spreading.

Red Cross volunteers kept in close contact with Agnes and her family. During subsequent visits they found her still suffering from depression and sleeping irregularly. She was slowly being accepted by her community again, however, her two eldest sons had been suspended from school because the family could not afford the school fees. Their father had been sending them to a private school, wanting to give them better education opportunities. “We tried to encourage Agnes to focus on getting back to her regular routine, such as caring for her children,” added Leung. “It took some time but it is slowly working. Agnes has again become more interactive with her family and neighbours. She is still hurting from losing her husband, her companion, the bread winner, and the support she used to lean on. But she is trying to stand on her feet again, to be there for her children.”