10 Years After Haiti Earthquake, Remembering The Family Members Who Didn't Get A Proper Burial
On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, my cousin Mikerlange Deus was sitting with her classmates at the University of Port-au-Prince.
Mikerlange was 26. She was just one month shy of getting her degree in computer science.
Her brother, Pierre Richard Deus, was living in Miami
“I mean it was her last year,” he told me recently as the 10-year anniversary of the earthquake approached. “I used to pay tuition for her.”
Our family is very big and we’re mostly spread across Florida and Haiti. At the time, I was travelling to Haiti once every few years. I never got to meet Mikerlange. I was in Haiti just two weeks before the earthquake in Gonaives— she was in Port-au-Prince.
Pierre Richard tells me he and Mikerlange were close. She was three years younger than him and liked to cook omelets for her big brother when he visited.
On January 12, 2010, her class at the university was supposed to start at 5 pm. The earthquake struck at 4:53.
“Can you imagine everyone is getting ready for class, you’re inside of your classroom waiting for the professor to come in and then boom,” Pierre-Richard said.
The entire school collapsed.
“That day she went to school and then you know she never came back home,” he said.
When someone dies in our family, like most Haitian families, there are rituals that we go through.
There’s the te veven we drink, a tea made out of porterweed, for the sezisman or shock.
An elder might dress the windows and all the door openings with white curtains.
And the night before the funeral, someone will grate ginger root to boil for the big pot of soothing ginger tea. Each person in the procession of mourners who comes to pay their condolences is offered a cup.
The next day, the the day of the funeral we go to church, we pray, we sing, “Dieu tout puissant, quand mon cœur considère.”
We cry and we say our final goodbyes as the casket is lowered into the earth. There’s a chorus of wails. Some of the women might have their waists tied with fabric, for strength.
And when we get home, more family and friends join us.
A bucket of water with sour orange leaves is placed at the entrance for people to wash their hands.
In every single step, we’re honoring and shepherding our loved one to their final resting place, to the other side that we can’t see.
We didn’t get to do that for Mikerlange.
“We didn’t hold any funeral or any service for her,” said Pierre Richard. “At least we could have done that if we found the body or anything like that.”
My aunt Marie Deus, Mikerlange’s stepmom, was in Haiti during the earthquake inside a car. She wasn’t injured.
She tried so hard to find Mikerlange.
She was the one to call other family members when she confirmed the school was no longer standing and that Mikerlange was likely inside.
“Bodies were all over the floor,” she said in Creole. “Some dead, some alive."
When she got to the university all she saw were plumes of white dust, mountains of broken concrete and other parents, like her, calling out for their children.
There was no heavy machinery to move the heavy rubble yet. The people who had gathered were digging with just their hands, and maybe a shovel.
She spent days out there looking for a sign of life or Mikerlange’s body to take home.
“I did everything I can,” she said.
One of Mikerlange’s classmates who made it out alive found her backpack and her cell phone.
He gave it to the family.
The communal search for her body ended about a week after the earthquake.
For our family, and many other Haitian families, having no body meant those sacred rituals could not happen—no white curtains, no ginger tea, no washing of the hands with sour orange leaves — and no burial.
“All of those rituals that normally one would do now because of a lack of body, you don't get a chance to do those things,” said Marie Guerda Nicolas, a psychologist and professor at the University of Miami whose been doing work in Haiti around mental health and trauma after the earthquake.
“Because you don't get a chance to do those, it makes it difficult for you to go through the stages of grief the way you should go through it,” she explained.
My uncle Edouard Deus, Mikerlange’s dad, says he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be OK, losing his daughter like that.
He was in shock for a long time. And felt like his grief was all-consuming, leaving him with constant headaches.
“You can't lose a young woman like her, brilliant like her and not always be thinking about her,” he said.
Long before the earthquake, Edouard had a family tomb built at a cemetery in Gros-Morne, the town where he was born.
The family tomb can hold six caskets because even in death, he wanted to know his family would always stay together.
Instead, tractors and dump trucks carried Mikerlange, his daughter, along with tens of thousands of other Haitians who died in the earthquake, away.
The Haitian government created mass gravesites where they unceremoniously buried bodies -- some mixed in with rebar and cement.
The largest mass grave is in Titanyen, a few miles north of Port-au-Prince.
About five months after the earthquake my uncle flew to Haiti from Miami and went to Titanyen. He looked out at the vast dusty earth dotted with makeshift white crosses—unsure if his daughter was there.
It was the closest he would get to a final goodbye.