The Sunday Essay: Narrating the seasons of grief

As Matariki approaches, Nadine Anne Hura learns that all endings are beginnings.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Te Kahureremoa Taumata

Content warning: This piece includes discussion of suicide


Hōtoke

Watch carefully those who hide their faces. You can hear when the mauri is not well. Do not neglect the ones in need, especially now the days are short and dark, and so very cold.

1

My brother left on a Tangaroa moon. It was Hereturikōkā, the month when the knees become scorched from sitting too close to the flames. The last photo he sent me showed a fire burning like a jagged hole in the fabric of the universe, like a portal, like a glistening shard inside the darkness of the pupil. 

If you could choose how to spend your last dollar, what would you buy? My brother bought a chainsaw to cut a fallen tree into logs, so he could build a bonfire on a riverbank under the stars. I can’t work out if he was cold, or just really fucking cool.

The night I found him, I was interviewed by a police officer who asked me where he was from. I gave her my address, which is where he had spent most of the previous year, and the place his mail was sent to, but I wanted to explain that he really didn’t live anywhere. Nanamā used to call him a nomad, because he roamed wherever the river took him, settling everywhere and nowhere.

He used to arrive and leave without warning, except for one time he leaned out of the window of his van and shouted so loud the whole cul-de-sac could hear. “Never ever forget me, never ever forget me!” 

I stood on the pavement with my girl and we laughed and shook our heads, then I went back inside and put the jug on and tried to think nothing of it.

In the back of the police car, I kept answering the officer’s questions with more context than was necessary. Her job was to collect a series of facts about my brother’s death, not a story about his life.

It made me realise that the place a person lives is fundamentally a different matter to where they are from. Where we live is the stuff of forms and administration and residential parking stickers. Where we are from is a matter of whakapapa. It is a matter of beginnings. It is a matter of endings.

From my kitchen window, I can see across Pāuatahanui towards the hills and valley beyond where my brother took his last breaths. Beside a river, of course. Every time I think of it I am filled with surprise. And dread.

How did he end up deep in the throat of Te Ika a Māui, when our father’s people come from so far away in the tail, beside the wandering waters of Wai-o-mio? How do any of us end up so far from the place we set off?

The answer is simple, really. He followed our mother. We both did. She came to Wellington from Papakura to start a new life two decades ago, and we followed and we stayed, even after she left. She was from a river, too. The river Mersey in Cheshire, England, a place her children have never been.

Note: Hereturikōkā can also be translated literally to describe how we are bound tight to our mother’s knees. 

Kōanga

Words don’t bring people back to life but do not let that stop you trying. Telling stories is the only defence we have against forgetting. Write your stories to the wind. Write them.

2

In the weeks that followed, I went to see a counsellor with my mother. You can get three free sessions if you are persistent and know who to ask, and have enough energy after getting out of bed. Mum inched her walker up the ramp and stopped under a kōwhai tree to watch a tūī that had swooped above us and settled on a branch.

She was still looking out the window when she sat down on the counsellor’s sofa. “I don’t know where I’ve been all my life,” she said simply.

3

Some mornings I am woken by tapping at the window and urgent, piercing calls: “He’s gone, did you know? Did you hear the news?”

It’s a lot to accept. It’s hard to hold on and let go at the same time. You can construct a life and save up for a mortgage, but you cannot negotiate with the dead. Somewhere there’s a girl walking towards a river tearing at her hair, throwing her hands up to the sky, shouting No, No, No, No, No, as though what she has just seen is a deal or a contract that she can walk away from.

4

Guilt.

5

Every loss to suicide is specific in its own specific way. I think that’s why it’s so hard to talk about. Those left behind are always picking through the rubble trying to work out what happened, or didn’t happen, in the preceding minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years. Even if you manage to sleep, your mind will keep doing this work.

In the beginning, new information is frightening. But after a while, fear gives way to the need to know. Did he receive your last text message? Did he?

The aftershocks keep coming. Everyday there are more clues and flashbacks. It’s exhausting. If you’re reading this, you should stop.

But you can’t. That’s what it’s like. 

The mail comes and you snatch it. You need to weigh everything you learn against everything you thought you knew. It would be better to flip a coin than to wait on the coroner’s report which will tell you many unwelcome things, except the one thing you most need to know. 

The worst part is that no matter how you order or arrange the information there is no change to the outcome. You can haul those rocks all day long but when you wake up in the morning he will still be gone.

Then one spring day you realise that you will never really know, not within the limitations of the mind, and if the shadow of doubt should always fall across this wrecked room then perhaps you should go out into the living world and learn to read the tohu.

Raumati

It is written in the heavens, and on the land, and in the sea. It is reflected in the divisions between night and day, winter and summer, brother and sister, joy and pain. The darker the night, the more visible the stars.

The days are getting longer and the nights warmer. The sun is rising before me. I keep breathing, sailing, trudging, dancing, incredulous that the body will continue to eat and laugh and make love and walk the dog at sunset.

I don’t want to talk about it.

I don’t want to talk about anything else.

I am not afraid of grief, I am afraid only of the absence of grief. I am afraid that if grief leaves me, I will be left with an emptiness I cannot fathom the depth of. 

Where is the centre of this loss so that I can call out to it? I am a thousand places all at once and yet simultaneously, I am nowhere. This is new to me, and it makes me feel as though I might be able to touch the other side with only my voice. It makes me feel closer to him in death than we ever were in life.

7

My brother always thought I had too much stuff. He hated stuff. He wanted less stuff. He was a minimalist long before it was fashionable or ethical. He kept only what he needed and what was useful. One fork, one knife, one spoon.

When my marriage ended, I moved into a cabin in a camping ground and he came over to visit one day and I offered him a coffee. I had two bookshelves, a desk, a bedside table with a doily, but nothing to stir a coffee with.

“You’ve got issues, Nadine,” he said, going to get his spoon from the van.

He especially hated shelves. Shelves were a trick, subversive: you need to be careful of shelves. Shelves require floor space, and floor space requires real estate, and real estate is not the same as land, certainly not free. Shelves will own you if you let them. We talk about a place to stand as if there is one, but people forget our connection to placenta has been severed.

I don’t care, I love shelves anyway. I love the way stuff looks on them. I love the memories they hold. I love the space they take up.

That’s the difference between him and me. I want to be weighed down. It’s called attachment. Shoeboxes of photos and baskets of wool for things I might knit, and the Bunnykins porridge bowl that we used to eat from in Chichester Drive when we were kids. I don’t use the Bunnykins, it’s too small and it might break, but that’s not the point. The point is knowing where I am attached.

Why was my brother not attached? If not to stuff, then to people?

The other day I saw an antique oak tea trolley at the Salvation Army for $80. I knew that an antique tea trolley wouldn’t fix anything, and I can’t attach myself to regret, but I wanted to rebel against death by putting a tea trolley in the middle of my lounge and making everyone walk around it so that grief can become an inconvenience, an eyesore, a reminder of all the things I didn’t get time to say. I want the land back. I want to negotiate. I am looking for evidence of his love. How does this work?

Hey,” a voice whistled from behind me. I stopped on the footpath outside the Salvation Army and looked over my shoulder. A tūī winked at me from a blade of harakeke. The city thrummed around us. Tūī opened his mouth and chortled so I could see all the way down his throat: “He must have loved you, ‘cos he built you some shelves, remember? You put them in the glasshouse for your herbs.

It wasn’t my birthday, it wasn’t Christmas, it wasn’t any special day. He made the industrial-style trolley out of materials he had left over in his workshop and drove it over in the back of his van. 

“I made you some shelves,” he said, smiling, as if he knew the distance between us was both minuscule and vast.

8

Among the few things my brother left behind were a brand new DeWalt chainsaw, a crocheted beanie I made him last winter, and a Spotify playlist so eclectic I could spend a whole year studying it and still not be sure what he was trying to say.

Some stats on song titles:

4 songs with the words “free” or “freedom” in the title.

6 songs with the words “high” or “higher”.

19 songs with “love”.

2 songs with “sister”.

Sitting at number two in the playlist, ‘My Hero’, by the Foo Fighters:

There goes my hero

Watch him as he goes

There goes my hero

He’s ordinary

Van Morrison’s ‘Into The Mystic’ features somewhere near the middle:

Hark now, hear the sailors cry

Smell the sea and feel the sky

Let your soul and spirit fly

But it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics that stare me down in the dark:

‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now

And this bird you cannot change

And this bird you cannot change

I was sober for five years before he died, now I’ve been drunk listening to ‘Man in The Box’ by Alice in Chains, ‘Alive’ by Pearl Jam, ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd, ‘How to Save a Life’ by The Fray and ‘Girl I’m Gonna Miss You’ by Milli Vanilli. In truth, it’s a bizarre playlist. Nothing fits or seems to belong. Shihad plays after Alicia Keys, The Cult, then comes Bob Dylan, Beck, Joe Satriani, Marilyn Manson, Macy Gray, and samba trance music. It isn’t The Breeze. It’s a playlist that demands attention.

Then again, how many notes does the tūī have? The tūī has ways of communicating humans can only aspire to. Sophisticated, fervent, melodic, mischievous. Tūī can mimic other birds just to screw with you.

He had a YouTube channel, which I only found afterwards. There’s a video of him ascending the inside of a wind turbine in the Manawatū. His helmet-cam records both the intake of his breath, and the lyrics of ‘A Million Miles Away’ by Rory Gallagher. The solitary climb takes the duration of the song, a full six minutes and 55 seconds. He emerges to the screaming wind and blue sky and whoops with delight. Maintenance at height was his job, and he loved it. He’d completed enough skydives to qualify as an instructor, and was only a few hours away from earning his pilot’s licence. When I say that my brother could fly, I mean it literally.

His obsession with heights and physics and falling made me think he was unafraid, but I have come to believe recently that he was familiar with fear, he just didn’t want to be controlled by it, nor by governments, and especially not by pain. And in the end, he was suffering terribly. 

Six minutes, I play that song and listen to the lyrics:

There’s conversation overflowing

But I sit here with the blues.

I see his hands reaching for each rung. I hear the clang of heavy boots on metal.

This hotel bar has lost all its people 

The piano man has caught the last bus home

The old bartender just collapsed in the corner

I hear the steady intake of each unremarkable breath as it fills his chest.

Why I’m still here

I just don’t know

I don’t know.

I see what he saw up there on top of the world. I feel what he felt. I imagine myself one day, making that lonely climb inside a dark cavity to the heavens above in pursuit of knowledge, and connection, and perhaps freedom.

I’m a million miles away

A million miles away

Ngahuru

You are a caretaker of peace. Of secrets. Of bargains. Of carefully chosen words and of silence. You are a caretaker of space, of multiple truths, of woven histories, of the artfulness of disconnection. You are a caretaker of memories, of roots, of soil, of seeds, of names, of naming. Yours is to stay and to care for the living.

9

After his kawe mate, I followed my brother to Te Rerenga Wairua. I went in his van to the place the spirits leave this world, along Te Ara Wairua to the cliffs above the crescent shore where the two tides meet. I picked my way down the side – just a little – to catch a glimpse of the ever-un-blooming pōhutukawa that clings to the rocks above the crashing waves. Last year I asked him if he wanted to do a road trip up north together at summer time and he’d said “maybe”, and I truly don’t believe this is what he had in mind.

On the way home I stopped at the Opononi pub and line-danced the Sunday afternoon away. When the band started playing Prince Tui Teka’s ‘Walking in the Sun’, a woman pulled me up to the dance floor and spun me around twice then shouted “just enjoy the moment!” as if it was that simple, and it really felt like it could be.

Towards the end of the day, one of my brother’s oldest mates walked in. For the first several minutes neither of us could speak. I couldn’t get over how much he looked like my brother, not just in appearance, but in his mannerisms. He had the same verbal tics and expressions. I called him by the nickname I had always known him, and after he’d gathered his words he began reminiscing. He told me how he first met my brother “spinning around on a hoist at Daily Freight” when he was just 17. He’d been a tuakana to my brother all these years, becoming close enough to resemble each other in minute ways.

Some people would describe my brother as solitary; a loner like the tūī. But he was much more complicated than that. The world bred in him survival instincts that made him distrustful, suspicious, and preemptive. The people who saw through this combative, self-contained exterior – and there were so many – were rewarded. He was loving, social, loyal, hard-working, wildly intelligent and good fun. 

I thanked my brother’s oldest mate for being there for him all those years and he held my gaze and said, “Nadine, it was a privilege to know your brother.”

10

I suppose I always knew that he would go before me because he always did. Sometimes he would wait for me, but mostly I was just trying to keep up.

On cold grey Sundays like this, he’d call me and we’d make a plan to meet at the pools. He’d park far away on the opposite side of the car park, I would jostle for a spot as close as I could to the entrance. Sometimes he’d cook tea; boil-up with doughboys or roast pork with crackling, and we’d play cards and both of us would cheat mercilessly, and eventually the kids would get bored and leave us to it, bickering and goading each other like the siblings we were always born to be.

Like any family, we had our raru. There were years when we didn’t talk at all. But when the time came, he was the one who backed a trailer down the drive in the rain to help me move out and start my life over. He was the one who sat beside me in the car when I asked him if I’d failed by leaving, and told me that everything would be OK, and that all endings are just beginnings.

He used to introduce me to his mates as “his sister, the writer”, as though I was famous. He once got it into his head that we could write songs together and become rich, like Elvis or Eminem. I could write the lyrics and he would come up with the beat.

I laughed and told him I couldn’t sing, and he slapped the table and said, “You don’t need to know how to sing, you just need to know how to tell a story and you’re the best at telling stories!” 

“But I don’t have rhythm,” I reminded him. 

He got annoyed and said I was making excuses. “We all have rhythm. I have rhythm, you have rhythm. So long as you have a heartbeat you have rhythm.”

I was laughing through tears when suddenly he got serious and pointed his drumstick at me: “You do need a catchy tune, though. But don’t worry, that’s the easy part.”

11

A few years ago, a tūī flew into the kitchen window when I was washing the dishes. The impact shook the whole bench and left a blue grey smudge on the glass. I rushed outside and kneeled down beside the stunned bird. The long summer drought had turned the grass yellow so it looked like he was lying on a bed of gold. There was a puff of yellow nectar on his beak and his dark, unblinking eyes stared vacantly into the distance. But his blue-black wing trembled with life.

I filled a box with fleece and placed him gently inside. As I lifted his body, I could feel the mighty beat of his heart pulsing against the tips of my fingers. As beautiful as tūī are, good looks are not the reason they have learned to thrive in an environment where other species have struggled and succumbed. The tūī is surely one of the smartest, most adaptive birds in the world. How much could they teach us about climate resilience?

But even a tūī is no match for three centimetres of double-glazing.

The whole night I tried to stay awake. Every 30 minutes or so I would lift the towel and check on him, as though vigilance alone would be enough to prevent death’s arrival. Around midnight, I shone a soft light into the box and the tūī blinked back at me like he’d been expecting me. Buoyed by his improvement, I dissolved a teaspoon of sugar in warm water and tried to ease a few drops into his beak.

When I was younger, I used to worry about my brother the same way. I was always checking on him. Sometimes children have that kind of knowing; an innate ability to sense if someone is in danger, especially spiritual danger. People might hide their faces, but you can hear when the mauri is unwell.

Looking back now, my puku knew he was in danger. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen him withdraw. We’d stopped going to the pools together. He wasn’t coming over to play cards or cook tea. He was leaving without saying goodbye.

But I was busy; always so busy. And I thought I had more time.

My tūī died in the night when I was asleep. 

Pōhutukawa

Don’t be sad, you will see each other again. Love endures. They are not lost, they are here with us in the embrace of the endless night. Seasons are brief but relationships are eternal. Matariki will disappear from view, but she always returns. This is how we know. Mourn their passing, keep calling their names, but celebrate their rebirth as stars. Kua whetūrangitia. Look to the dark horizon, there you will find them, watching and blinking, closer than you know. Be grateful and be glad. Take hold of the treasures they left behind. Te waka o Rangi has arrived to gather the spirits. All endings are just beginnings.

12

Somewhere there’s a girl sitting beside a river beginning to heal. Learning new-old ways of listening and knowing and relating. She’s learning that you cannot negotiate with the seasons, only prepare for them.

She has begun planting her garden with harakeke and kōwhai.

She is building a fire. She is waiting for the return of Matariki.


With deep gratitude to Rikki Solomon, whose work and research into whakamōmori and maramataka has unlocked my understanding of suicide, trauma and healing. Also to Dr Rangi Mātāmua, whose book Matariki, Star of the Year, has helped me understand and observe the rituals of Matariki. And to Te Kahureremoa Taumata, for creating incredible parallel imagery that has added layers to this story that the written word cannot hope to touch. Ngā mihi ki a koutou, otirā ki a tātou ngā whānau pani o roto i tēnei tau hou Māori.


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 talk@youthline.co.nz or email talk@youthline.co.nz
  • 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.




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