The big deep hole and the tears
The first death seemed easier. Otis, the little black and white dog, that didn’t really like him much, was on mum’s knee. Otis never went in the car so something was happening. And mum was crying and dad had a look on his face that was maybe the saddest look we’d all ever seen.
We didn’t know that death was coming closer to our little whanau and the other deaths would cut right through and hurt so much more.
The dog went to the vet, on mum’s lap. And the dog never came home.
My youngest son didn’t seem to notice. My eldest son, all of three, seemed to know just enough to set us off crying with comments like “He was your best friend aye dad? Our dog? And now your best friend is gone”.
And then came the terrible news that a most-beloved aunty had died in a car accident. How to explain this to a child. That on the backseat were gifts for him from his precious aunty who used to put her hair in a scrunchy to make him laugh. Who used to bounce him on her knee and call him “her boy”? How to fill the silence when it hurt so much for us too?
He wasn’t afraid when he saw her body. He sat beside her. He drove his car up and down next to her coffin. But when the haka began and the wailing started it felt like something had opened up and I cried so hard I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And both children needed me to hold them as their dad held the coffin and everything felt just so heavy.
The grief came down on us in waves and the house felt still and sad.
But then – we would walk into kindergarten.
And the light was always there. Paints on the table. A warm smile not just for our babies but for us too. And kindness, a hug, a shoulder touch – “How are you holding up?” It meant the world.
Another family for our children to ask questions like “Did you know they put Aunty in an oven? And she got all burned up?”
And calm and gentle teachers giving calm and gentle answers when it felt like it was impossible to find the answers ourselves.
And then, suddenly, the head of our family became sick. My husband’s grandmother, the children’s beloved Nan. And I was alone in Wellington while my husband slept by her bed in Auckland.
The kindy jumped into action again for us – longer days, offers of meals, support from the community.
And then when the time came, and it did, a place to return to where there was still light.
A place where the days are peaceful and gentle. The paints are always out. The sandpit full. Dinosaur bones to find in the mud pit. Bottle tops swinging in the wind. And a couch where I can sit and remind myself life, in its abundance continues.
Kindergartens are stability to children when they face deep loss. They are the place they can always return to and nothing has changed. A home can feel, within the walls, the deep sadness for a while at least – until the sun reaches every corner.
But an ECE centre is always bright. Not just the walls, but the community – the support. The solidarity.
The sudden death is the worst. When nobody can sleep. When questions come thick and fast like “How does someone go to work and not come home?” and “Will you die Daddy?” And the fear begins to grow, hanging around, wrapping itself around every space in a little one’s mind.
It has been the longest day and tonight we won’t fight the children wanting to join us in bed. They’re safe here.
And in the morning they’ll cling to us because it’s scarier now, but there are always, always hugs. Patience when parents nerves are frayed and we’re just so tired. But they’ll know this child needs something extra today, and so do their parents.
How willing teachers are to face the hardest questions, to support parents in finding answers where there are none.
After the tangi (funeral), the car is silent. Children are sleeping. Mud on the knees of little suit pants. A flower gripped still in a little hand – a refusal to put this little daisy into the ground to never see the light again. No music. Just the hum of the road, the day stretching on, toward home.
And home is two places now – where our children live and where they grow as well. Two little homes, somehow both ours. But one is shared with a whole community, a suburb, a village. And they sing songs while holding buttercups under the chins of babies so we can all remember that there’s so much joy.
We fill the big deep hole. Cry big fat tears. Climb into the heart-shaped space our community made for us. Gather strength, feel safe again, continue on with hope.