Riding in cars with…kids.

Image from here

When trauma and loss happen most of us know what to do. We know who to call, where to seek help and what we can (kind of) expect about the ways to cope. I guess we’re the ambulance chasers of our own experience.

But what happens to kids when life and all its catastrophes happen?

Catastrophes in a kids world can be big and small – they’re not proportional to ours. They have different meaning and the lens by which they explore them doesn’t match with the life lessons we’ve endured.

Centuries ago when I started working as child protection caseworker I did a whole lot of training on how to talk to kids, the ways to build rapport with a small person that had never laid eyes on you before. I cant imagine how scary that would be for a small person to be expected to bare their soul to someone – but I do know that being a place of safety for a kid overrides that fear of stepping into their lives for the first time.

Every Friday night my daughter and I drive a small distance to her dance class. We changed classes this year to a spot that was a few minutes walk away but I realised that in doing that I missed the chance to talk. Its funny to watch a 6 year old grappling with her identity, how quickly some kids are able to reflect on the who’s, whats and whys of their existence. In the driving to and fro we created chances for random, but meaningful conversation.

We started back at that place a little further away this term. As each Friday night looms I think of 1000 reasons why Id prefer to be at home with my Ugg boots on but once we’re set, when a small person has been dropped to his cousins and bigger girls are OK to wait for Dad to get home from work I relish in the talk of the journey.

Its been on these trips that Ive been able to explain divorce, explain the difference between Daddy and Dada, the reasons why its Ok to be married to 2 people (but hey not at the same time. This isn’t Dr Phil) and about what makes us happy and sad. Its not all drama, its all the places in between.

It was raining on Friday, the streetlights were bright and they smeared across the windscreen, the singing between her and I to songs that probably arent suited to a 6 year old were belted out. She cleared her throat and said ‘mum, tell me about you as a kid…do you think you were as funny as me?’.

Riding in cars with kids can create the chance to stare out the window and solve the dilemmas of the world.




Giving power to the loveliness

I had a story published at Daily Life this week. It had been a story that had been rattling around in my head for a long time. Its something that Ive been pondering when I study – its about the fact that if we are all going to experience some type of loss, at some time in our lives, why dont we talk openly about living in that space after the loss has happened?

I think there is a common thread through our desire to hear people’s real stories – to hear the nitty gritty details, why the news is so invasive, why we watch people having microphones pushed into their faces to give us the scoop on just how it is they will go on. We then mutter to ourselves that we dont know how they’ll survive – that if we were in their shoes then we wouldn’t be able to cope. I cant even type the things that Im frightened about losing in my life, its too awful a place to go to.

The thing is people are still walking, talking, ordering coffee and going about their lives in spite of what has happened to them. Chances are that if we ask a person about their life they will have a story (or 7) about something catastrophic that happened to them at some point or continues to happen to them. But we dont ask ‘whats your tips for surviving, well?’. We either say nothing or shake our heads and give our condolences.

The story I wrote included some thoughts from Ingrid. Ingrid came to talk at my work a few weeks ago, she finished up her hour long chat by reminding us that in the midst of all the awfulness the world was still out there, that it was still a beautiful place and that despite what had happened to her she would continue to believe that. Turning off the news, closing the paper and not honing in on the trauma wont stop us from remembering that it happens – it will go on regardless – but it might make us take notice of the lovely things that are still here, not gone.

What do you think?

Is resilience an innate skill that we all have lurking somewhere in side of us – waiting to jump out??

No other explanations…part two


Thanks for popping back this evening to read the second half of this lovely interview. If you didnt read the previous posts click here to have a read.

Like I said in my opening last night one of the main reasons for asking to Emmanuel to chat was for me to learn more about how we, as helpers, look after ourselves. Also a couple of years back I hosted a roundtable for siblings who had someone missing – it was the first time many of them had been given the chance to share their story. Their story away from the glare of their parents, away from other people’s interpretation and without having to worry what their words might mean to others.

These ideas shaped the remainder of my questions.

Here it is….love and light to you all x


Working in the trauma field how do you manage looking after you?

To be honest I probably look after myself rather badly. Part of my job is listening to other people’s problems and trying to help them in some way. I always thought if I listened to other people’s problems then I could forget about my own to some extent and not have to worry about what wasn’t working in my own life. The problem with that is that your own problems never really go away and at some point you will need to face your own issues.

Self-care and being kind to yourself is definitely something that you are aware of when you work as a counsellor and it is something that gets discussed in supervision especially. I think it is important to have rostered days off and not to feel guilty about them. When you do it is important to do something nice for yourself and to enjoy it.

The hardest lesson to learn is not to take work home. In the early days of my career I was very bad at that and would think about clients on the bus or at dinner and even before going bed. The more experience you get the easier it becomes to switch off and to detach from work at home.

One important element in all of this is never to talk about work at home or socially. Friends and family have a curious fascination about your job when they know you are a counsellor. Other than the obvious privacy and confidentiality issues, I find it is easier not to talk about work generally when out socially. Having a clear distinction between your life at work and your life outside of work is very important.

Some things I do specifically to take care of myself include going for long walks and learning to meditate. After spending an 8-hour day listening to people talk and then responding in turn, it is very nice to not have to do that when you get home. It is important to me to have that down time when I first get home of not having to engage in any conversation and to spend some time unwinding. I need at least an hour when I get through the front door to unwind and switch off.

The flip side of that is that when you have a particularly bad day or are working on a case that challenges you and pushes your buttons it is important to talk about it in supervision and with your manager so as not to take it home. Having a high level of self-awareness is also very important because you need to know what pushes your buttons and why. If you know the answers to those questions then you usually know what you have to do to address the issue.

Does the wider community understand the losses you have endured – do you feel confident to speak about your experiences?

I often talk about my brother’s death with those closest to me both personally and professionally. When my brother died I got an enormous amount of love and support from work colleagues. All my team came to his funeral and most of them had never met him. The support I got from work colleagues made it easier to talk about.

On the downside I can’t hide from it either. Now that it has been nearly 5 years since he died it isn’t as easy to say to them I am having a bad day because I miss my brother. People look at you funny as if to say, “how much longer is this going to go on,” or “aren’t you over it yet.” I am more selective with what I tell them now. I am open about his birthday and anniversary of his death and Christmas being a hard time, but find that I talk about him less and less at work because I no longer get the support and understanding I did initially.

My brother died on a Thursday and for the longest time Thursday was the worst possible day of the week for me. I could barely function and I could hardly breathe or cope with work but somehow you find a way through it. I would get home as quickly as I could and then I would lock myself in my house and close all the lights and just sit and stare in the darkness and allow myself to feel the grief. I don’t do that anymore but I think for the first 2 years every Thursday was like that. Now I can get through most Thursday’s without feeling this way but if I have a bad Thursday I won’t talk about it because it takes more effort to explain why rather than living through it.

With regards to family and friends it is often hit and miss these days. Many members of my family that were close to him miss him just as much as I do. My brother’s death has had a devastating impact on lots of people. Yet any discussion about him is left to me to generate. They often say to me we don’t want to upset you by mentioning his name and talking about him, but sometimes I wish they would! Not talking about him and my paranoia that they may have forgotten him is infuriating at times and I wish they would communicate more about what they are thinking and feeling.

Most of my friends have been very supportive and have been an excellent outlet for me, but they have also been the ones who have said some of the most hurtful things. I saw a bereavement counsellor for over 2 years after Theo died and I remember talking to a very close friend of mine about the fact that it was coming to an end and how anxious I felt about that. Her response was – “it is about time you stopped seeing the counsellor – now he can finally support someone that needs it!”

What do you think people need to know to understand more about sibling loss?

Bereaved siblings are often called the ‘forgotten mourners.’ All the attention whether rightly or wrongly seems to go to the parents and any other surviving family members that your sibling has (i.e. spouse/ children). As a sibling you are made to feel that your grief is not as important and for some reason you are never able to fully acknowledge the devastation that you feel at your sibling’s death.

Anniversaries and holidays are especially difficult because for some reason most people ask you “how are mum and dad coping?” It amazes me that these people never stop to think that I may not be coping or that I may need someone to talk to at these times. Christmas especially is like that. My brother loved Christmas and would get excited about decorating the house and buying presents for those he loved. We haven’t decorated the house since he died and I find it hard to celebrate at all, but we force ourselves to do so knowing how much he loved it.

Prior to my brother’s death I never would have thought that there was such a thing as competition or a hierarchy of grief, but as a bereaved sibling you are constantly made to feel as if your grief is not as important as what others may be and you are definitely made to feel as if you are at the bottom of the pecking order.

When my brother first died I thought that it would be fairly easy to find some literature and books on sibling grief. Reading has always been an outlet for me and I respond well to structure and guidelines. To my astonishment that was not the case. If I was lucky enough to find a section in a bookshop that had more than one book in that area, inevitably there were no books on sibling grief. There are books on just about every other type of grief but yet again siblings are largely non-existent in the literary world.

Similarly I thought it would be helpful to join a group where I could listen to other bereaved siblings and hear what they had to say and how they deal with their grief. Yet again this proved to be virtually impossible. To the best of my knowledge there is no adult bereaved sibling group in the whole of NSW. Young children who are bereaved siblings get lots of support and interventions and yet are left to fend for themselves when they become adults.

So I took matters into my own hands and created a support group for adult bereaved siblings. I joined The Compassionate Friends NSW which is a worldwide volunteer organisation supporting bereaved family members. Through lots of advocacy and hard work I established its first adult bereaved sibling support group in April 2008. I subsequently also became the siblings representative on their council for a 2 year period.

Society in general just doesn’t recognise adult sibling grief. I think part of the reason is that people are surprised to know that my brother and I were very close and I miss him dreadfully. As adults we sometimes have antagonistic relationships with our siblings and there is this perception that adult siblings aren’t as close as they were when they were younger. This is not always the case. Through my group I have met many adult siblings who had positive and loving relationships with their siblings and who feel the same way I do.

I don’t know why sibling grief is not more widely recognised or considered in any way. Especially as an adult I feel that there are certain expectations that I am able to ‘cope’ better than I have and I feel a lot of judgement when I tell people that I still have bad days and find it hard to get out of bed and do what I have to do. People’s initial response is something like “aren’t you over it yet,” or “it has been nearly 5 years and you really need to move on.”

Of course on a superficial level I have moved on. I continue to work and eat and sleep and go through the motions of living my life. I have travelled and am currently studying and generally do everything I can to keep myself busy. Yet there is a part of me that died the day my brother died and that part of me will never be brought back to life. As much as I want to I cannot pretend that my brother hasn’t died and that his death hasn’t affected me in profound ways. I just do the best I can to get through each day the only way I know how. By the same token I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture and I am not severely depressed or suicidal. I just think it is important to acknowledge the sadness I feel and the reasons why.

The best advice I have received since my brother died is 2 very simple things. A good friend of mine in America wrote to me in the days after my brother’s death and she said to me that all I needed to do was to put one foot in front of the other and to try to keep walking – left foot/ right foot/ left foot/ right foot etc. I didn’t need to do anything more than that in the early days. That took an amazing amount of effort in itself but was something I could relate to.

The other piece of advice I received was to remember to breathe. As simple as it sounds it was something I would often forget to do. When things are so overwhelming and I feel as if I can’t possibly go on and the pain and grief is unbearable all I have to do is simply remember to breathe. Just breathe.

So as simple as it sounds and for whatever it is worth, that has become my mantra now and I remind myself of it on a daily basis – remember to put one foot in front of the other and to breathe whilst I am doing it!




I dont have any questions to pose at the end of this. I just think that its important to sit with the words. Thanks M x

cracks through to light…

I’d been following Kristian’s blog since I saw that snippet of his life on a big American TV show. I was impressed with his honesty , his integrity and his capacity to put into words what love meant for him.

It was with great sadness that I saw a little post on twitter the other night saying that he had slowly slipped away. I went back to his blog that I had been reading and was really struck by what a fast decline there had been in his condition – only a few short months ago he was talking about his hopes for the future but probably the most difficult post to read was how he was slowly answering his children’s questions. I kept wondering after I saw that little blip on twitter what his boys must be thinking and how they could slowly be sitting with that first layer of sadness hearing that their dad was now gone.

I did some creative writing prompts early on in my blog career (well September). This one played heavily on my mind when I read about answering stuff. It also played on my senses when I thought back to last week and the struggle I had in explaining how unfair life can be to my beautiful girl. I watched her struggle with the rawness of truth, the shitiness of how other people’s behaviours can impact the very core of you and how loss can be exaggerated at different times. Some of the year we happily skip about not noticing what is absent and then at certain times loss knocks at your day and you just cant turn it away. Difficult concepts to explain to little people.

I got an email from a research fellow this morning asking for some thoughts about how young people live with the loss of a missing person and I pointed out that there was so little (well nothing) written about it but that many moons ago when I had sat with some kids I did notice that no one should fear saying “I just don’t know’. It doesn’t provide the answers to any of life’s questions but it does give a response that is honest, respectful of the child’s need to know and the starter of a conversation that might lead to more uncovering of layers as time goes by. It provided an opening line to a very long dialogue.

Parenting in happy and sad times probably teaches me more about life, resilience and moving on than any book I could ever open.

Vale Kristian Anderson


Looking up

I wrote a few weeks back about the idea of first firsts…about the space between the life you’re living and the reminders of the past when we take a trip down ‘this time last year’.

For people living with life and sadness and loss the arrival of Christmas can surely shake the ho ho ho’s out of you. I know that I start to resemble the grinch when I see reindeer antlers on cars I secretly hope those little rudolph remnants get ripped off driving into a suburban shopping centre  (can you tell that Christmas isnt my most favourite holiday of the year)?

When I used to work directly with families living with unresolved losses Christmas was a tricky time – the setting of the table reminded people more of who wasn’t there rather than who was. The passing out of presents brought the reality home that the simple gift of giving couldnt be shared with that person. And for those that embraced spirituality the message that they were all part of a family was a little too distant for those who felt they had not much to hold on to.

We might talk about the rituals of loss but the rituals of life are often more closely linked with what is absent. Through the year the times we where are encouraged to sit and be with the ones we love automatically provides the flipside notion of who we dont have.

I didnt necessarily learn any new skills in managing the holiday season from the families I worked with. There werent any top 5 ways to get through the season but I did notice that the art of bunkering down and surviving it became the task that they all aspired to. We all often reflect that in the bracing for the day we hate that once it passes, it becomes a little like a giant life lesson band aid – once we rip it off we see the little scungy mark it left behind and then we try to focus on moving forward again.

Life is an interesting little mix of lessons and learning…for all those living with the first firsts I hope that the morning after gives you some space to breathe, to rip off that bandaid and to keep looking onwards and then  maybe upwards.

Being while being without


I was given the chance to write about the ways people living with an unresolved loss might be able to ‘reconnect’ with the people they had lost…the big challenge there was the ambiguous part of it all. I think a few people thought I was a bit odd writing about reconnecting with missing people, people who had vanished or people that had been murdered but we didnt know where the body was…in the writing and thinking process (well the copious coffee drinking process) I sat and spoke to a few people about their own experiences. One of the women told me that in order to reconnect with her brother (who had been missing for a long time) she wasnt going to go and sit on a park bench or stare out to the ocean like she thought she was supposed to. She was just going to take some time to remember the things he loved, that she’d find him in his CD’s, in thoughts of growing up, in the books he loved and that she find ways to be with him despite being without him.

A picnic is being held in Sydney today for people to reconnect with loved ones who have died…I was drawn to the beautiful picture in the paper of a silk installation blowing in the wind. The article shared the power of coming together in a community to reconnect but it also talked about those within certain cultures or faiths having access to rituals to help them acknowledge what was lost. It touched on the fact that for some without faith or socially constructed ways of grieving people might be  ‘on their own’…it reminded me of the families of missing people I’ve worked with who might find themselves, in some circumstances, without culture or faith as well as without the access to rituals even if they wanted them – no funerals, no death notices, no public proclaimations that they had lost someone. Sometimes the only reminder of what was lost was an image on a ‘missing’ poster.

The idea of a picnic to introduce the dead back into the community is a way to provide ritual where ritual might be lost…but also a reminder that for those whose losses arent so clear cut – missing, miscarriage, illness, divorce – that we give everyone the space to say hello again* to a person, or connection, that is so sorely missed.

How do you say hello…again?

*Michael White, 2005

The transparent space

The question of who we really are, the truths we seek from others and the reality of what we know was tested last night when I went along with some mates to see Transparency….as much as the subject matter was heavy the underlying questions of how well we truly know each other, or even how much we really should know about others in our lives was so well portrayed that it had us all talking over a long coffee and a slow drive home….as a social worker and as someone who is invested in understanding people’s narratives my pursuit of the truth sometimes takes me to places I dont want to go to. Even in my personal life I’ve often found myself asking questions and then bracing myself in preparation of the answer – the more I ask, the harder it is to stay silent. For me the space in between truth and trust is about being prepared to hear the answers and I must admit that sometimes not knowing is better than knowing.

This all might sound a little like gobbledigook….the play looks at the unravelling of a man’s life after the disapearance of a small boy in his community, it looks at the impact of the loss on the uncovering of key truths from a man’s past that in turn unravel the lives of those around him…I sat still for the whole performance, tightly gripping my hands, arms folded almost to protect myself from where I could see it all heading. It reminded me that in life the keeping of secrets always leads to confusion and a more complex web that over time gets harder to escape…

What do you think about truth – is it overrated or should it be embraced at all costs??

That squiggly line


When I was little I remember staring up at my parents large bookcases in the lounge room – titles that to this day I havent read, covers that were well worn and a clear mix between both my mum and dad’s tastes. Soon after my grandmother died my mum came home with a book that took its place on the second shelf from the top, I can remember saying its title over and over in my head but I dont ever remember lifting it down to have a look. It was Kubler-Ross’ book on death and dying – it obviously stuck in my mind because when I started my Social Work degree it was one of the first books I borrowed.

For a really long time I thought that the idea of grief as an index where we could tick off each phase was the way that people could be helped through their loss – rather than with their loss.  It seemed like such a neat idea for such an all-consuming human experience…but clearly the first day I actually sat down and spoke with someone about their loss I quickly tucked any reference to death and dying back onto that second shelf and I let it collect dust.

Mary Grogan’s recent article in Mindfood nicely articulated the realisation I came to along time ago…’that the stage theory is not indicative of the majority of people’s experiences’….people all respond to death and loss in their own ways – the idea that we need to bang down the doors of a counsellor or a support service is actually not the way most people live with loss. In fact the literature says that most people do tend to manage well long term when a sudden loss occurs, it changes the shape and feel of who they are but they go on to live with that loss and they manage it. The idea that we have to tick each ‘stage’ in order to progress always perplexed me. As a competitive person I could almost imagine myself saying ‘well I did anger really well, now on to bargaining…’

A friend who lost someone a few years back explained to me that in the early days he lived with the loss being a big ‘chunk’ of his life – it consumed him, it was all he could think about but that over time, by giving himself space to remember his brother in different ways (other than only about those last few moments) his ‘chunk’ got less and his life started to take over again. He said that these days the chunk still exists – it gets bigger from time to time and then at other times it just sits in the background – its part of him, but not the whole of him.

So if you think about grief as that squiggly line where sometimes it takes you on a wild ride and then at other times its a little smoother then we wont all have to show each other that we’ve ‘processed’ it because loss is part of life and life is full of loss…

Closure…is there ever such a thing?

A couple of weeks ago I had my first freelance piece published at Mamamia. Click here if you’d like to read the comments from Mamamia readers if not here is the article…

Social media provides an instant platform for people wanting to respond to tragedy and trauma. No matter what type of loss we might be witnessing the same words tend to swirl round and around – we rally at the injustice of ‘bad’ happening to ‘good’ people, we tell each other to hold our babies tighter to remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have and we commonly fall prey to the word closure….closure for the losses we experience, closure for the packaging up of unimaginable traumas into a neat little box and, my personal favourite, closure as a way of signaling that people need to move on.

Watching the world of Facebook, Twitter and a plethora of sites respond to the news that a man had been arrested for the murder of Daniel Morcombe over the weekend it was clear to see that the community wanted to respond by declaring that closure may have been in sight for the family. As a society we don’t cope well with loss but responding to an ambiguous loss may be even more challenging for us to comprehend. The counselling world (and their love of labels…) use the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to define those losses where there is no finality or certainty that a loss has occurred, which is what happens when someone is missing. Images of missing people are part of our history; we grow up remembering the faces of those that are lost. We have our theories as to what has happened to them, we wonder about the grief, the lack of closure these families may be struggling with and then when we hear news that confirms the finality of their loss and we tend to fall quickly into the clichéd responses.

In my experience of supporting families the news of the location of a missing person does not create closure. It just creates another tragic layer within a complex web of loss that families have to contend with.

Each year in Australia about 35,000 reports are received by the police regarding a missing person and 1600 people remain missing long term. I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know Bruce and Denise Morcombe along with many other families whose lives have been frozen by that moment in time when someone they love vanishes – some are the victim of a crime, some disappear after struggling to live with a mental illness, some choose to walk away and some just leave – we don’t know why. Of those 1600 people the publicity that surrounds certain cases varies. The photos that the families choose as their missing persons picture becomes symbolic and is emblazoned in our minds, inviting us to ‘know’ the person being searched for. The pictures are powerful reminders of who was lost and possibly who may be found.

Grief has no hierarchy; we know that in any person’s lifetime they will be faced with sudden and unexpected challenges. We lament how bad things happen to good people. The loss of a person who is missing creates an additional complexity – it is no worse or better than any other loss but it is different. It is different because families of missing people are forced to live in that space between the possibility of life and death. A place where some days they imagine the return of a loved one and then other days they are hit with the stark reality that that person may not be coming back. Regardless of what they feel on any given day the ‘missing’ part does not allow them to speak with certainty about their loss. They can’t bury their loved one with dignity, they don’t have access to all of those rituals like funerals, death notices or even permission to talk openly about what’s happened as others do when they are faced with the stark finality of death.

So whatever the outcome the Morcombe’s are faced with it is clear that as a community we want answers for them. Closure may never come for those who endure ambiguous losses. The loss may be extended over months or years with little hope that one day the truth may be revealed.

Social media can provide some answers – I did hold my kids a little tighter tonight when I put them to bed and I was reminded that the world is an incredibly unfair place. As long as we try to keep supporting each other through whatever losses, the ambiguous and the more clear cut ones, we can only create a better community that is open to thinking realistically about loss and all of the complexities that come with life.