When a loved one takes their own life, it can feel as if the system is stacked against the bereaved. But traditional ways of healing can coax whānau pani back to a place of light, writes Nadine Anne Hura.
This post contains discussion of suicide: please take care.
There are few things about suicide that are universally true, except perhaps for this: those left behind live with questions. For Mataku Ariki dee Roo, who lost her father, Phillip, in 2002, when she was 20, those questions were “was I not a good enough daughter? Was I not present enough in his life?”
It would take Mataku almost 20 years to finally circle back to those questions. She wrestled with “what ifs” and guilt. Her mind returned to the weeks and months before her father died. She replayed the nights when he would sit in his car outside her house with the motor idling, looking in – making sure, she gathers now – that it would be OK for him to go.
When he passed, instead of support, she felt punished. “Back then, it was like, ‘your dad committed a crime, bury him’. There was no compassion from the police. They treated his death like a crime scene.”
The social stigma was oppressive. “Dad’s family were Catholic, so in their minds, he had sinned. They wouldn’t even carry his casket. Only one uncle, when he saw my brother and I struggling, got up to help.”
On the day of his burial, Mataku learned she was hapū with her first baby. Survival kicked in and delayed any grieving. Three more children followed and the years ticked by.
For Mataku, it wasn’t a choice when the suppressed grief began to resurface. Recognising she was slipping, she did everything right. Everything we’re told to do. She reached out for help.
“Straight away,” Mataku says, “I had to fit their criteria to qualify. It was one of those typical situations where the counsellor sits on the other side of the room with a clipboard,” she trails off and shakes her head. “I was meant to have five sessions, but I couldn’t continue after three. It wasn’t helpful at all. In fact, things got darker.”
Whakamomori is often used interchangeably with suicide, but Rikki Solomon, whose research is dedicated to understanding and applying the knowledge and wisdom of the maramataka, says that tohunga like Papa Rereata Makiha, and other kaumātua, believe that whakamomori isn’t the right kupu to associate with suicide. “Suicide is a wholly negative word,” Rikki says. “It can cause a lot of mamae for whānau. Suicide implies that the person made a choice, which is very painful.”
The word “suicide” can be traced to the Latin source “cide”, meaning to kill or intentionally extinguish. But “momo”, Rikki explains, means to mourn, yearn, fret or let go. “That’s quite a different perspective. A person who is experiencing whakamomori is in a deep state of te pō – te pō nui, te pō roa, te pō uriuri [the deep dark, the intense dark, the unrelenting dark]. They’re not able to see or think clearly. It’s an internal battle. I often say people are likely being acted upon by outside forces.”
This interpretation aligns with the mātauranga shared by teacher and master carver Tākirirangi Smith. In his research on traditional Māori healing, Tākirirangi describes whakamomori as the final stage of pōuritanga, where the will to live is no longer present. Within kōrero tuku iho, or oral traditions, whakamomori is viewed as “a journey from te ao mārama to the entrance of te pō”. The first to ever walk this path was Hinetītama, who yearned to return to te ao wairua following a deep trauma. It is a tapu state, and should be approached in accordance with tikanga.
But while whakamomori implies an acceptance of death, it is not the actual passing over into the place of permanent darkness.
This highlights another crucial difference between whakamomori and suicide: there is hope. Yes, there is darkness. There may even be desperation or resignation. But, unlike suicide, you can come back from te pō.
A source of light
In his role as a mataora with Mahi a Atua, Rikki will often start by sharing the story of Uru Te Ngangana, the mātāmua of Rangi and Papa. Uru was the tuakana of the whānau. During a hui, Uru was challenged by a teina. The insult caused Uru deep pain, and as a result, he withdrew and hid under the korowai of Ranginui. Isolated and disconnected from his whānau, Uru began to weep. As his tears flowed, they froze and turned to ice.
After a time, Tāne came to Uru and asked to borrow his children. Uru collected his shimmering tears, and Tāne placed them in the heavens. Some became whetū; some reside with Te Marama, and some with Tama Nui Te Rā.
“That’s what stories are,” Rikki says. “A source of light. That’s why it’s so important that whānau pani are able to share their stories. They provide insight and direction for others. It’s the same with our maramataka. That’s our guide. We look to the heavens in our darkest times and see the stars that our tūpuna used to navigate the oceans, the heavens, their very survival. Uru’s despair made that possible.”
Healing beyond words
On the last day of 2019, Meritian Sekene’s cousin took his life. He was like a brother to her, and in the days and weeks of early 2020, Meritian watched all the people who loved him slowly spiral away from each other. “When you lose someone extremely close to you,” she says, “there is a level of sadness and pain, but when that person has taken their own life, it adds a layer of heartache and grief that feels unbearable.”
Recognising that her ‘āiga needed ways to come back together and to process their emotions, Meritian turned to art. The idea came to her first in a dream. What if people had ways to express themselves that were beyond words? Not being an “artist”, Meritian initially tried to push the idea away. But it kept floating back to her. “So I thought, OK, I’m a practical person, I can do this.”
She made a plan, called some people she knew, stayed up late, and developed an eight-week programme including painting, drawing, screen printing, guided meditation, even spoken word poetry. With funding from the newly established Centre for Māori Suicide Prevention, the programme culminated in an art exhibition that took place exactly where the hurt was greatest: at home.
“We understood from many others who shared their stories that home is where most suicides occur, so we knew that’s where the healing had to happen. We wanted to bring hope back home.”
The Hit Home exhibition was shared with the whole community, and it started at the front door. On each panel, the artists shared their inspiration, including the questions that still haunt them. “Why?” was one that ricocheted back and forth between all.
But so too did light and colour and memories.
The response was powerful, not just for the artists, but for the wider community who came to see the exhibition. Some just stood at the front door and wept as if they already knew what waited for them inside. Others found themselves opening up.
“That was the special thing about having the exhibition at home,” says Meritian. “It was personal. Strangers would come through and then suddenly start telling their own story. It’s like they just wanted someone to listen to them.”
The revolution begins at home
Listening to families bereaved by suicide is something suicide prevention advocate and clinical psychologist Keri Te Aho Lawson has been campaigning for since she lost her own beloved brother, Conrad Stephen Lawson, in 1988, when he was just 21.
“The revolution begins at home,” Keri says. “It doesn’t begin anywhere else. We have terrible stories of our whānau being retraumatised by the system because they don’t fit the criteria, or because no one has faith in them to know what they need. Right from the first moment when the police arrive, to the coroner getting involved, and every government department in between, the state has all the power to make all the decisions. Whānau are shut out.”
Keri regularly makes space for whānau pani to bring their lived experience into rooms where policymakers and health professionals are making decisions. Support for the bereaved is critical, because if you lose someone to suicide, especially if that person is your child or parent or sibling or partner or favourite cousin or best friend, then you have a much higher chance of following the same path. The circles of vulnerability include the person who made the discovery (which could be someone unrelated), as well as those who shared the same household. In many cases, one person will be in all three circles of vulnerability.
“Postvention”, as it’s called in the sector, recognises that healing the people within these immediate circles is active suicide prevention. Yet, ask anyone bereaved by suicide, Māori or Pākehā, they’re likely to tell you the same thing: there’s no support. In fact, there’s a kind of “anti-support”.
Chloe Hura, who lost her dad at the start of the August 2020 lockdown, describes what she went through in the weeks after his death. “I didn’t qualify for bereavement leave because I hadn’t been in the job for six months. My employer was really understanding and let me take time off, but if I didn’t work I didn’t get paid. It was so hard going out there serving people and clearing tables and then spending every break crying in the bathroom.”
Most standard employment contracts are prescriptive about who is considered an immediate family member, and how many days of leave a person is entitled to based on the degree of that perceived closeness. The interpretation is biased towards the “nuclear” family. It doesn’t allow for cousins who are more like siblings, or aunties who have been like mothers. Most entitlements don’t even kick in until a person has worked more than six months. And there’s certainly no provisions for the particular vulnerability of the bereaved by suicide.
For those who are already in a precarious situation, the struggles compound after a suicide. Chloe was supporting her teenage sister and made enquiries on her behalf about the unsupported youth benefit. “That was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. The questions the interviewer asked were so traumatising. They only focused on the negative things about us. They made us feel as though Dad dying by suicide was a good thing, because it made us more likely to qualify. I was in tears, shaking all over. In the end they told us not to bother applying because our situation wasn’t ‘bad enough’.”
The financial burden of suicide is not often discussed. For those under an income and asset threshold (read: in dire poverty), a funeral grant is available through WINZ. Rarely, ACC might provide assistance to partners or dependent children if it decides that a person’s suicide was an accident – a contortion of policy logic that is not only confusing, but also has the potential to result in a serious inconsistency of application.
In both cases, there are forms to complete, invasive questions to answer, and wait times that can extend out for years. This is on top of myriad bureaucratic processes that descend like an avalanche in the aftermath of suicide: applying for a death certificate, dealing with IRD, closing accounts, and providing information for the coroner’s investigation.
When you’re bearing up under a weight of questions, wrestling with blame, guilt or shame, and can barely get out of bed (but have other at-risk people depending on you), it’s difficult to imagine how the system could be designed to be any more hostile to grieving families.
Cultural blind spots
Although lacking in coordination, there is support, especially if a person is motivated to help themselves, resourced financially, and persistent enough to keep pushing on closed doors. (A number are linked at the bottom of this story.)
Some services and websites sound Māori, because they have Māori names, but the therapies and therapists are predominantly Pākehā. One example is Aoake Te Rā, a free counselling service specifically for the suicide bereaved. People can self-refer, search the profiles by expertise and region, and wait times are short. Most therapists have videos accompanying their profiles to assist you in finding someone you gel with. But, even though its name means “a new sun rises”, the search filters do not include “mātauranga Māori” or “rongoā Māori”. “Experience working with Māori” is not the same thing.
These cultural blind spots are pervasive throughout the health system. The default prescription for someone experiencing grief is counselling – or therapies that involve talking. This is despite the fact that demand for counsellors critically outweighs supply. Even when counselling is free, there’s often a limit on the number of sessions that are funded.
The After a Suicide website contains a wealth of information, but is silent – or perhaps does not register – that for Māori, some of our most important questions following a suicide have nothing to do with forms, and everything to do with tikanga (for example, the need to cleanse or whakanoa a tapu space). While it certainly isn’t for the government to touch tikanga, the lack of acknowledgment of Māori experience post-suicide rings loud.
The mainstream approach also fails to recognise that some healing, just as Meritian’s dream told her, requires therapies that are beyond words.
Four months after her daughter Georgia died in 2016, Suzy Taylor enrolled to become a qualified counsellor. She considered herself a strong and resilient person, but losing Georgia – after her husband also took his life – nearly broke her. She spent the first year of her training just grieving. Now Suzy is one of only a few Māori practitioners with Aoake Te Rā, helping other bereaved families and doing what she can to make changes from within the system. “Lived experience is critical,” she says. “I work for the cause. I’m inside it.”
Suzy is also the suicide postvention coordinator with Lakes District DHB. “Every time someone takes their life in the region I get a notification. It’s always ‘Māori male, Māori male’. Our men are in a war zone. What are we doing about it?”
Suzy says the system needs to change how it responds to people in suicidal distress. “When people go to the emergency department, they should be offered romiromi and mirimiri [a traditional healing technique, often compared to massage]. Instead they’re sitting on plastic chairs and left to stare into space for five or six hours, lonely. Why are waiting rooms like this? We should place healers in our waiting rooms so the atmosphere is calm and peaceful and people feel a sense of belonging. But 80% of people who turn up at the ED do not attend their follow-up appointment. There’s a reason for that.”
Recognising the lack of access to Māori healing therapies, Suzy, together with other bereaved mothers, including Mataku, Jane Stevens and Tasi Ruwhiu, created a healing wānanga for whānau pani. They wanted to wrap the kind of support and awhi around other bereaved families that they wished they had had. They expected about 20 or 30 local people to attend. But on the morning of the pōwhiri in March 2020, a group of almost 100 from all over the country had gathered outside the waharoa of Te Papaiouru in the village of Ōhinemutu.
Inside the wharenui, Tamatekapua, under a korowai of spiritual protection, healers used their hands to physically lift away the ache and stuck pain of whānau pani. Outside there were weavers, carvers, storytellers, poets and artists. Meritian and her family brought the Hit Home exhibition all the way down from Manurewa and set it up in the wharekai. Whaea Kataraina Miringaorangi shared kōrero tuku iho about Uru te Ngangana. Spaces were opened and closed with karakia to keep everyone safe. Tears, laughter, waiata and words flowed.
These are some examples of wairua therapies. Or, as described by Tākirirangi, the methods by which we might “coax people back to a place of light”. These therapies aren’t just beneficial for Māori. They have the potential to offer healing for anyone who is bereaved by suicide. When a person crosses over into permanent darkness, it is hard not to want to follow.
But with stories, chants, and songs, “all night and all day long” if necessary, it is possible to return from te pō.
The causes of suicide
To understand why Māori are more at risk of taking their own lives, we need to look beyond the facts to the root cause. Tākirirangi writes that whakamomori is caused by “patu ngākau”. Patu ngākau is a strike to the heart, or a deep emotional wound. It is the original trauma, or any memory of it that causes mamae.
As with Hinetītama, as with Uru, patu ngākau can cause whakamā or shame. The loss of control to an external entity can cause a person to isolate or withdraw into darkness. Excessive pōuritanga is dangerous, because it generates pūhaehae. Pūhaehae in this context is described by Tākirirangi as division and internal isolation that weakens the whānau. When a whānau is weak, people might look for spiritual relief and respite in harmful ways. The patu ngākau then begin to compound, and the divisions increase. In this way, trauma can be passed from parent to child, father to son. This is how a whole whānau can experience whakamomori.
“Wairua trauma travels through generations,” says Keri. “So healing has to be about seeing that for what it is. Our people have long histories of trauma. The loss of our land and our language. The loss of life through infectious diseases. Incarceration. The criminalisation of our whānau, the theft of our babies. My mother was a ward of the state and it wrecked her life and nearly took out all her children, starting first with my brother.”
People who deny that racism exists today will often say that “Māori need to get over it”, or that what happened “is in the past”. But our suicide statistics provide concrete evidence that colonisation is not in the past.
Interrupting intergenerational harm is everyone’s concern. Identifying and acknowledging the original patu ngākau is a critical factor in suicide prevention and healing. When suicide awareness campaigns implore people to “talk about it”, the effects of colonisation on Māori spiritual wellbeing, including the ongoing presence of racism, must be part of that conversation.
Yet there are limits around what people are allowed to say in relation to suicide. Legislation prohibits anyone but the coroner from ruling a death a suicide, and strict regulations control what can be reported or even discussed online. The reasons for this relate to the risk of “suicide contagion”, or the increased likelihood that talking about suicide may encourage others to take their lives, particularly if the cause of death is described in detail.
But Suzy says that the issue is not whether we talk about it, but how we talk about it. “Most people when they come to the first session just want to get their story out. They want to tell on themselves and the guilt they feel. Perhaps they are the discoverers. It’s important that they can release that mamae, but conversations need to happen in a safe way.”
Tākirirangi’s research supports the notion that caution is needed when discussing suicide. “The traumatic event is considered tapu, because it belongs to te pō. As a tapu subject, it is to be discussed within specific ritual contexts. A pokanoa, or trivialising of the event, can add to the pōuritanga associated with the whānau. The tikanga around this is to open and close a talking space with karakia. The closer to the event, the more important it is to do this.”
Karakia can be an important safety mechanism for a person who needs to dispel the heaviness of certain difficult memories, particularly in the case of the discoverer. “People can poroporoaki to the trauma and mihi to te ao mārama,” says Tākirirangi. “A tohunga or somebody with good knowledge of tikanga Māori will understand this process and carry it out. But it can also be carried out within a person’s internal dialogue.”
Suicide has historically been seen as a shameful, weak or selfish act. Religious ideology implies a person has “committed” a sin. These punitive attitudes underpin the policies that deny practical and financial support to the bereaved. The impact societally is universally negative, but there can be very specific cultural repercussions for Māori, with stories of whānau denied at the gates of their urupā or challenged inside the wharenui.
Preventing suicide, therefore, requires reconstruction and revalidation of Māori knowledge. Unlike the duality of good and evil within religion, Māori knowledge teaches that light and dark are neither good nor evil, they are simply different states of being. “Both are critical to our health,” says Tākirirangi. “When the mauri is well, it is travelling within its natural cycle. The important thing between darkness and light is a natural balance that fits with the environment.”
Rikki agrees. “Transformation is the key to life,” she says. “All of us can experience times of struggle and darkness. Our earliest creation stories remind us that without the separation of Rangi and Papa, light would not have been possible in the world. What our whakapapa, pūrākau and kōrero tuku iho teach us is about the interconnectedness of all things.”
When darkness is excessive, rebalancing is needed. “Traditionally,” writes Tākirirangi, “pōuritanga manifests in the deepest part of the ngākau and can affect the internal balance and a person’s clarity. At times like this it is always useful to locate the source of pain, acknowledge it and let it go with poroporoaki.”
Healing can include storytelling, composition, mahi toi, even kaioraora. Sometimes, as Mataku discovered, non-verbal therapies are more helpful than counselling. Walking in the ngahere, visiting ancestral maunga or awa, or planting kai. This is because memories of pain are held not just in the mind and the body, but in the whenua. “Just spending time in the māra can be a form of healing,” says Rikki “both for ourselves, and for Papa.”
He ara uru ora also highlights the importance of rest. “At night, during sleep, our wairua travels. This is the realm of Hinenuitepō and is essential for growth and restoration. If a person is not sleeping well, their wairua hasn’t fully departed their body, enabling sleep, so Hinenuitepō is not able to fully refresh the toiora. At the onset of dawn, a person is likely to feel listless. But too much darkness can be dangerous. Literally spending time in the sun is essential.”
Underpinning this knowledge is deep insight that can help with prevention. “Tohu,” says Tākirirangi, “are signs, or indicators that speak to the ngākau. All things generate tohu, or a number of tohu. The interpretation and assignation of value and importance may vary. Tohunga are experts related to specific fields, but due to colonisation, their knowledge has been devalued. It ought to be revalued.”
Rikki and others, under the guidance of tohunga, are on that path of reclamation. Following the maramataka, Rikki says that there are certain times during the year, and different phases of the moon, when certain people will be more vulnerable to taking their own lives. In particular, members of our whānau (like Uru), who hide their faces, or become withdrawn, should be watched carefully and brought close. This is especially important around Matariki.
In this way, Rikki says, we can become our own self-navigators. Keri believes the time is right for these gifts to come forth. “These things are in us. They are all around us. When you tune into te ao wairua, the knowledge comes to us. That’s because wairua is who we are, first and foremost. We are vessels for wairua. Generational mōhiotanga, whakapapa. Colonisation tried to take that from us, but our wairua has never been destroyed.”
The answers are in stories
Perhaps the only stories that really matter are stories of hope. For Māori, data isn’t it. Suicide statistics year after year tell us that it’s our people, more than any other group in Aotearoa, who have lost the will to live. The media reminds us regularly, as though we don’t already know it personally – as though we haven’t seen it first hand in the eyes of the people we love.
“Facts aren’t answers,” says Rikki. “The government keeps delivering the facts, but it doesn’t make a difference. They tell us the truth, and it’s painful, but it doesn’t make a difference. But when a whānau tells their story, that’s when the transformation happens.”
Mā te tikanga ka ako, mā te kōrero pono ka mārama, mā ngā pūrākau ka maumahara.
Teach us the facts and we will learn tell us the truth and we will understand but tell me a story and I’ll remember it forever in my heart.
(First Nations whakataukī, nā Rikki Solomon i whakamāori)
Helplines, counselling & websites
Aoake Te Rā – free counselling sessions for the suicide bereaved
After a Suicide – practical information and guidance
Le Va – suicide prevention and support for Pasifika communities
Yellow Brick Road – mental wellbeing advice and information hub
He Kapehu Whetū – profiles of a range of whānau-led initiatives
Māori Centre for Suicide Prevention – funding round opening soon, whānau are encouraged to apply
Patua Te Taniwha – Rotorua-based community events including Ride 4 Life
Lifeline 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE)
Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com
Research & mātauranga Māori healing
Mahi a Atua (see also regular live Facebook videos)
Videos and podcasts
Shot Bro – Rob Mokaraka’s story
Māui’s hook – Documentary with personal stories of whānau pani
Voices of the bereaved Part 1 (featuring Suzy & Mataku)
Voices of the bereaved Part 2 (featuring Suzy & Mataku)
Voices of the bereaved Part 3 (Healing wānanga Rotorua)
New Zealand books written by the suicide bereaved
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.