Loss and grief - Keeping connected

"Many whānau manaaki received tohu from Atua and tūpuna when their kaumātua was preparing to pass through the ārai (veil) or had arrived safely on the other side."

Death is a time when the spiritual dimension is activated. There are many profound lessons that can be learned at this time and healing can be gained from observing everything that is going on at that time. Whānau often observe their kaumātua receiving affirming messages from wairua (spirit) and these provide encouragement. Many whānau who took part in the Pae Herenga study told us they received tohu (signs) from Atua (God) and tūpuna (ancestors) when their kaumātua was preparing to pass through the ārai (veil) or had arrived safely on the other side of the ārai. Feeling connected to the kaumātua and their tūpuna in this way was uplifting and comforting.

Grieving is helped by the ancient tikanga (customs) that were put in place by tūpuna to care for those who have died and those who remain. When we do not grieve effectively any pain and emotions that are stuck or still lingering (guilt, anger, blame, shame) can cause depression, anxiety and create dis-ease. When the losses pile up, one on top of the other, it can feel overwhelming. It is important to our health and wellbeing to release the mamae and free ourselves of these restrictions. Discussing and processing unhealed trauma before the kaumātua dies can be helpful. Talking with the kaumātua and others can be important in clearing the air and making peace.

The tangihanga process provides a supportive environment that celebrates the life of the kaumātua, and it provides a safe and supportive environment and atmosphere to say goodbye. However, tangihanga also provides a process where the older person’s life and death is reflected on repetitively during the ritual of pōwhiri; whānau pani and their loss is also acknowledged and the aroha of those present flows towards them in a healing embrace. In addition, having karakia (prayers), waiata (singing), rongoā and kai available to nurture and sustain mourners ensures that they are taken care of emotionally, physically and spiritually.

The tangihanga process provides a supportive environment that celebrates the life of the kaumātua, and it provides a safe and supportive environment and atmosphere to say goodbye.

Practicing spiritual beliefs is experienced as uplifting. For example, belief in Atua (God), tūpuna (ancestors), wairua (spirit), te ao wairua (the spiritual realm) and the eternal life of the spirit can bring comfort because whānau pani know where the wairua of their kaumātua will be traveling to after they die and they know that they will meet them again when they leave their bodies and return home.

Rongoā can help to relieve symptoms associated with loss and grief; rongoā can help to soothe aching tinana (bodies), hinengaro (minds) and wairua (spirits). In this way, grieving whānau can be strengthened to express their mamae (emotional pain) as they transition slowly through te kore (a state of intense darkness symbolising their deep and all-encompassing mamae), through te pō (symbolising deep sadness), before gradually entering into a state of te ao marama (symbolising a more settled wairua, hinengaro and tinana). The grieving process is a cycle (not linear); our lives move upwards, downwards, backwards and forwards, when we are grieving. When whānau draw on the tikanga and kawa left by their tūpuna (ancestors) this can really help to soothe their mamae.

Mary Te Awhi [hospice kaitakawaenga] explained that it is often a listening ear that helps bereaved whānau:

I usually, if they are whānau that I’ve built quite a [good] relationship with, I will usually see them, either at that [bereavement] time. I’ll go out and pay my respects (if they’re still local), go out and pay my respects to the whānau. Might in some cases go to the actual service on the day. And in… some cases, if I can do neither, I will do a follow up later, a bereavement follow up. And I have been asked at times, to follow up on complex grief… I don’t just turn up on the doorstep. I call first, because I don’t want to give them a shock that I’m turning back up ‘oh, not hospice again’. You know that I’m turning up on the door and usually they’ll say to me ‘yes’. So, I know from the ‘yes’ that they need to talk. And so, I will go out and usually we’ll just sit and relax, and I will just let them talk it through.

Listening to whānau is one way we can support them to grieve:

[I say to bereaved whānau] ‘Don’t apologise for using an expletive. I’m not here to judge you because it may help you to feel a little bit better.’ And sometimes at the end of it I go, ‘How do you feel?’ They said, ‘Oh, I was just so pleased that I could talk to somebody and get it off my shoulders.’ Unburdening. They can’t do it [unburden themselves] to the whānau because the whānau are grieving. But [in this case] the whānau were stressed, or there might have been some mamae in the whānau before the death. Often that happens as well… And then I give them an option of me coming back again, in maybe another two, or three weeks, time. Would they like another one? And so, if they go ‘Yes that would be nice’ I say, ‘but I am going to call first, and if you feel that you’re okay, please don’t accept the visit because you want to make me feel good. This is totally about you and if you feel you’re on a journey to healing, that’s as good as gold’ I said, ‘but I’m happy to pop in, have a quick cup of tea and go again.’

Finding your own way through grief

Everyone’s experience of grief is different. Many things impact the way grief is experienced including the relationship and level of emotional connection we have with the deceased, prior experiences of loss and grief and other factors such as stress, financial issues or family matters.

Kaumātua Hugh reflected that grieving is deeply personal and can have different layers to it. He spoke about how he and his whānau coped after his first wife passed away, highlighting that some whānau need to find their own way through grief:

[My first wife and I] had six children and the youngest one was seven or eight but anyway, you know we had a real good life as a family before that. And her sickness sort of come on quite suddenly even though she had a history of high blood pressure and stuff like that. And it got to a point where she passed on. Ah, we had the hui at the house, and everybody comes, as is usual. And her sisters in particular… We came down to the house to bless the house and of course the first thing the sisters wanted [was] to come and live with me. And to me that would not have really comforted my grieving… I wanted myself and my kids to learn how to get ourselves out of that space.

However, that was going to be. Now we learned a lot in the first couple of months after their mother passed away; a) where [normally] the clothes were washed and kai was cooked, the clothes were ironed, and the house was kept, and all the rest of that stuff wasn’t happening. The wash house was now so full of clothes you couldn’t open the doors. So, we had to take a real hard look at ourselves as to where we were heading. And I think, for us the acceptance that we now had to tow-the-line ourselves, was the only way we’re going to get [through this]. Otherwise we’re going to be sitting around the house moping, filling the house with all sorts of rubbish, moping and feeling sorry for ourselves. And not addressing that other side. Sure, you can grieve but there are different levels of grief, I think.

Whaea Tina acknowledged how difficult it could be for whānau to provide care to an ill kaumātua when the family has to work or are busy with other things. Despite her own struggles with a life limiting illness, and processing her own sense of loss and grief, Whaea Tina was very grateful to the health professionals for everything they did to help her. She also highlights that the ill person has to put themselves first and prioritise their own well-being and the end of life:

I want to reach out to everyone that’s got a sickness [and who find] that it is hard to come to terms with. Don't get upset if you’re alone, because you will be, maybe not. Whānau have to make a living to live [and they may] have their own whānau to worry about. Someone said once, ‘get your priorities right, whānau comes first’, but there is no right or wrong. We the sick ones have to get our priorities right and think about number one - ourselves. Only we know who and what we want, can and can't have.

My story of me is mean, hard and rough. But I thank each and every [person]; doctors and nurses, ambulance workers, support workers, hospice, hospitals. If I had been through [this] without you guys helping me I wouldn't be here doing what I’m doing. Least but last, I love my whānau and friends.

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