Tears begin to well up in his large, dark brown eyes as Rigaud "Rico" Dieudonne tells his story — of a man destroyed by grief.
The Las Vegas resident clenches one hand in a fist and incessantly rubs his knuckles. He glances up at the church ceiling as he seems to silently plead with God for his life. He uses his free hand to rub his temples, then his eyes and finally, to wipe away the tears.
His thoughts, he says, are saturated by suicide.
For most, the catastrophic earthquake that swallowed Haiti’s capital city two weeks ago remains a distant tragedy that they read about in the newspaper and see on the nightly news. They can respond by donating time, money, food and clothes to victims of the natural disaster.
For those who lost loved ones in Port-au-Prince, this is a tragedy with a face as people try to pick up the pieces of their lives from the bodies and the rubble.
For now, any attempt at a normal life is impossible for survivors, and experts say the psychological impact can devastate even the most level-headed person.
Dieudonne said he lost his dad, three brothers, three sisters, two cousins and an aunt in the earthquake.
"I’m not thinking straight. In my head, I’m thinking suicide, because I don’t have anything to live for," Dieudonne said.
Only his mother and two sisters survived. They searched for the bodies of relatives at three different houses but were too late. Neighbors said they had been packed into a trash bin for transport to a large hole in the ground with the rest of the dead.
Dieudonne, who has lived in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, approached other local Haitians and quickly plunged into charity work to cope with the loss of his family. He took a break from this work at a local church collecting donations for the earthquake victims to recall the dead:
His 80-year-old father, Benisse, liked to work with his hands on a farm with cows, rice and corn. He was a loving dad who took care of his family and would take his sons fishing.
Oldest brother Renald, who was a midfielder, taught poor kids how to play soccer. He liked to wrestle his younger brother and both would pick on each other "just to get a reaction." They would go swimming in the ocean for hours.
Then there was older sister Bernette, a free spirit who loved to travel to Paris and Spain with her little brother and buy him gifts.
It helps to talk, Dieudonne said. And it helps to keep busy working at First Baptist Church, 4400 W. Oakey Blvd.
It’s not just the death of 10 relatives, he said, but the feeling he’ll never truly be able to say goodbye.
"Everybody went to mass graves," said Dieudonne, who would like to return to Haiti to see his 85-year-old mother but has no immediate plans. "That’s the worst part. If I go home right now, I cannot go anywhere to pray and talk to my brothers and sisters or my dad. That’s why I’m getting involved with the community. If I don’t, I’m thinking stupid things I’m not supposed to think about."
Human beings are "resilient creatures" who live through significant stressors and "come out in good shape on the other end," said Emanuel Maidenberg, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies stress and anxiety.
"You have to have patience with your own process of getting through the stage of accommodating into your life the disaster," Maidenberg said. "And realize that what happened was not under your control and these things are likely to happen in the future."
Although closure and emotional relief come when the dead are buried, he said, it’s possible to experience that without the body, as is the case with mass graves.
"Express what you need to express in lieu of the fact that you don’t have the actual bodies there," he said. "You can say it or write it. Writing is potentially more helpful than saying it. It has to be expressed in some way, and emotions will follow."
Pastor Amors Prophete at Eglise Messianique de la Grace has been a spiritual adviser for Dieudonne during this tough time.
"Some people when they have problems, you can see it on their faces," Prophete said. "Others you have to go deep inside to see how they suffer."
Prophete said Dieudonne copes well when he’s around people. The minister also reads Bible studies to Dieudonne over the phone before he goes to bed every night.
Three days after the earthquake — the same day he got a call that his family had been wiped out — Dieudonne lost his job as a chef at the Sahara.
It’s just another blow in a three-month-long string of bad luck. He cannot afford to repair his Jeep, which was rear-ended at a red light. Kidney stones sent him to the hospital on Thanksgiving. He doesn’t even have photos of his deceased relatives because someone broke into his apartment and stole a box of his belongings.
But he isn’t complaining. "The only hope I have is God. I’m praying to stay strong and keep faith with God," he said. "That’s the only option I have right now. Otherwise, I think I’d be gone right now."
Contact Kristi Jourdan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.