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A woman with her hair in a bun sits at a table, back to the camera
Nadine Anne Hura in a scene from her Māori TV documentary Aro

ĀteaMay 24, 2023

More truth than my chest could hold

A woman with her hair in a bun sits at a table, back to the camera
Nadine Anne Hura in a scene from her Māori TV documentary Aro

Nadine Anne Hura on adapting her Sunday Essay, about living in the aftermath of suicide, into a documentary for Māori TV.

Content warning: This piece includes discussion of suicide

This time last year I had just finished filming a short documentary adapted from my Sunday Essay Narrating the seasons of grief. Earlier this month, a whole year post-production, the documentary was released on Māori TV.

Translating from the page to the screen was a strange experience. When I saw the first cut, I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to be a spectator of my own life. I didn’t realise – naively I guess – how much more visceral pictures would be compared to words. Words can be manipulated, muted or sharpened, they can convey multiple things at once. Pictures and sounds in contrast make everything loud, bright, singular and definitive. 

Re-enacting the wild, tragic year following my brother’s death – from the first few minutes sitting in the back of the police car to physically retracing my steps along te ara wairua to the leaping place of the spirits – was more truth than my chest could hold. I had wanted to show what it’s like living in the aftermath of suicide, but when I saw what it’s like I wanted to look away. Who would even want to know?

a hand holds a photo of a young man, with a pile of photos in the background
A scene from Aro

A couple of weeks ago, at the same time the documentary was released, a friend suddenly and uncharacteristically went offline. This came after several weeks confiding in me that he was not doing well. There was some Heavy Shit going down and he was feeling isolated and increasingly desperate. I’m not sure why of all the people in his life he chose to reach out to me; someone quite removed from his immediate circle. But then again, perhaps that’s why.

Just after midnight my phone blinked in the dark with a single, inscrutable word. 


I didn’t see it until I woke up a few hours later. It was 3.30am. I’m not sure why I felt drawn to pick up my phone, but I called him back straight away. Sometimes “Hey” can mean many things. 

The call went straight to answer phone. Texts showed “sent” but not read.

All through the next day I kept watch on his last-active status. Not knowing where he lived, or who his immediate family were, I wasn’t sure what to do. I kept telling myself the things you tell yourself:

He’ll pop up when he’s ready.

He’s turned off his phone. He’s gone off-grid.

He’s a grown man.

You’re being dramatic. Think about something else.

He’s not your responsibility.

Then, the clincher:

You can’t save everyone.

I watched his last active status tick past six hours, seven, 11, then 16. After 24, I knew that Facebook would stop counting. 

looking through the windscreen at a woman driving a car, with a tree reflected
Nadine Anne Hura in a scene from Aro

At the time of writing, my brother’s last active status is 22 hours and almost three years. I can still vividly see those two digits displayed beneath his name. At 22 hours, he still felt close enough to reach. Close enough to get in my car and drive out to wherever he was and knock on his door and sit with him. Close enough to put the jug on. Close enough for Facebook to still track his activity, to measure the distance between his still-beating heart and a glowing green light on a screen. 

PTSD is a terrible affliction. It exists somewhere in the body. The mind isn’t in control. Counting is calamitous. I’m still counting. Going over what I did or didn’t do, saw or didn’t see, should or shouldn’t have done.

People will say to the suicide-bereaved that we are not responsible, that if a person has made up their minds there’s nothing anyone can do, but this isn’t a rule so much as a summary of what happened. 

It might be the kindest thing to say, but if it were universally true, why would we bother with prevention? We can’t say there is an inevitability to suicide and also keep the faith that on the other side of severe darkness there will be light. Survivors themselves can tell us what interventions pulled them through.

a Māori woman sits on a chair, she is being filmed by a man with a camera
Nadine Anne Hura during the filming of Aro

Blame sets up an uncomfortable dichotomy. If not my responsibility, then whose? It plays into the idea that suicide is a choice, pushing responsibility back onto the person who died. This unexamined default has deeply religious roots. It’s why the phrase “committed suicide” is so pervasive and rarely corrected or challenged or even noticed. 

Historically (and arguably still), suicide was treated as a sin. The language typically associated with suicide implies a person has made a weak and selfish decision. These punitive attitudes underpin social policies that continue to deny any meaningful support to the bereaved. Many families descend into financial hardship following suicide, unable to return to work but needing to more than ever to make ends meet. 

There’s no recognition of the particular violence of death by suicide and the unspeakable imprint left on discoverers, only veiled judgment from the coroner who can take around two to three years to release their findings. Death by suicide will only be covered by ACC if it can be proved that a state agency has failed in some specific, yet oblique and inconsistently applied way, effectively splitting the bereaved into two arbitrary groups, one “deserving” and one not.

The logic is both implicit and explicit: death by suicide is not an accident, it is a conscious and deliberate choice made by a person who has made a plan in their right mind and then carried it out. 

Translation: we’re not to blame: they are (or you are). 

Could the state have any more contempt and hostility for the vulnerable if it tried? No one plans to enter suffering from which the only liberation will be their death. Subliminally, these messages have precisely the opposite effect of reducing the risk of suicide. It’s confusing to watch resources poured into prevention strategies and mental health campaigns while those living in the literal aftermath of suicide suffer invisibly and silently at the other end of the policy spectrum. 

As a group, the bereaved are statistically at higher risk, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Living with grief and our own conscience is battle enough. Blame will lie down with you at night and guilt will get up with you in the morning and PTSD will invite you to an arm wrestle at the table over breakfast. Every day you have to put on your shoes and walk straight past. Distraction is crucial, but the real work is much deeper.

Conversely – inspirationally – when supported and resourced, the bereaved are often the best placed to help others. Our unique and varied experiences provide critical insights that can help with healing, not only giving voice to the grief and how we get through it, but also in terms of prevention. We can talk about warning signs, the tohu hidden in plain sight, all the things we’d do differently if we could turn back the clock. That’s why I made the documentary. 

A close-up side-on view of a woman with long hair, looking down
Nadine Anne Hura in Aro

Nearly three years later, the truest thing I have learned is that suicide is not a decision, it is a response; often an understandable response to overwhelming feelings or circumstances in a given moment in time. In terms of blame, it feels similar to a car crash: the disastrous outcome of a confluence of “if-only” events and risk factors, from bad weather, to poor decision-making to slow reflexes. Every day in the aftermath of suicide is an exercise in acceptance that this is just what happened. 

On a different day or different year, a different set of circumstances and conditions may have produced a different outcome. We do our best to mitigate the risks of suicide the same way we repair potholes in the roads and wear our seatbelts. We make an effort to catch each other, even those outside our immediate circle. We call the police and make welfare checks when we’re worried, we listen to our gut when it’s telling us to wake up in the middle of the night for no reason.

Sometimes, we see the signs. Sometimes there aren’t any signs at all. Sometimes we can save people, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes, against the odds, that green light will come back on and a person will send a message to say that they made it through the long awful night. 

And some days, especially now that Matariki has retreated from view, you can stand at the window waiting for the sun to rise, so late and slow and dark on the horizon you might think it won’t. 

But it always does. You can put your faith in it. 

The sun rising above the hills with a with a house in the foreground
Photo: Nadine Anne Hura

Where to get help

If you found this story upsetting or triggering, talking with someone about how you are feeling can be helpful. This includes friends and family or others in your life, or you can contact formal support services:

  • 1737 Need to Talk? Free call or free text 1737 any time for support from a counsellor or peer
  • Lifeline 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE)
  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email or email
  • If you are or someone important to you is in crisis right now call 111, go to your nearest emergency department or phone your local DHB Mental Health Crisis Team (find your local number by ringing Healthline on 0800 611 116).
  • For further information and suicide prevention resources visit The Mental Health Foundation’s website.

This is public interest journalism made with the support of NZ On Air.

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