John Norman’s wife Becky died of metastatic melanoma in November 2014 at the age of 41, just three years after surgery to remove the mate pukupuku / cancer from her back. Lymph nodes taken at the time showed no evidence of disease and yet when diagnosed with advanced melanoma, the mate pukupuku / cancer had progressed throughout her body.
John remembers the diagnosis of advanced disease was a total shock. “If you saw Becky you’d think she was fit and healthy. There were no signs of illness at all. We were unaware the melanoma had returned until she came home from work one day and said she couldn’t lift her arm up and couldn’t write. She went straight in for scans. The cancer had spread everywhere.”
The prognosis was not good, and Becky passed away six weeks later.
John and Becky’s two sons were aged almost four and just 18 months at the time. Becky’s death was sudden. There was no visible deterioration, no chemotherapy treatment and so her tamariki / children did not experience the gradual decline that can accompany a diagnosis of terminal mate pukupuku / cancer. To the whānau, it seemed like Becky had ‘gone out and been killed in an accident’. The boys had no idea how sick she was, and John and Becky had no time to prepare them, or each other, for what was going to happen.
Finding Kenzie’s Gift
John says in hindsight they made some mistakes because they didn’t know what to do when Becky died. Kenzie’s Gift therapist Lorna Wood gave John some valuable advice. “We scattered Becky’s ashes together, took a video, and said goodbye to Mummy. The boys can watch it any time and recall saying goodbye to her. Because they were so young when it happened, they may well forget ever saying goodbye. I wouldn’t have known to do this had it not been for Lorna’s suggestion.”
John found himself a solo parent on a single income, struggling with his own grief and trying to do his best for his young tamariki / children. It was his father-in-law who contacted Kenzie’s Gift and explained the situation. Both boys were offered support with psychotherapist Lorna Wood, and this was a ‘life saver’ for John.
John’s eldest son began seeing Lorna not long after Becky’s death. “It was a massive deal for a four-year-old to lose his mum and have that ‘my parents are super-heroes’ concept blown to smithereens. My youngest at 18 months was just too young to comprehend what was happening and as a result, his journey has been very different to his older brother’s.”
John’s eldest son had two years of intensive therapy with Lorna and then stopped for a year. He returned for more at the age of seven, had another break and is now seeing Lorna again. John says his eldest son’s experience is a good example of how long a grief journey can take, something Kenzie’s Gift therapists are well aware of.
“Lorna has taken that grief journey with my eldest boy. I would not have been able to afford support like this for so long had it not been for Kenzie’s Gift. Grief is a process, and as he gets older, he learns more about what it has meant to lose his Mum. Each developmental stage a child goes through can bring out another emotion and more awareness of what that loss means.”
Understanding the grief journey
John believes there is a general lack of understanding about how long a grief journey can take, particularly for tamariki / children. “My younger son is seven now and has just started seeing Lorna because it’s only now that he is realising what not having a mum means. It’s a developmental thing. He is more aware of what people have, and what he doesn’t. He has a greater understanding of the loss now and is grieving that loss with more awareness.”
Both tamariki / children are on different individual journeys. John says with candid honesty that he cannot relate to their journey any more than they can relate to his because he lost his wife and not his māmā / mum, two very different things.
‘‘I have no idea what it is like to lose a parent at the age of four or two, to have your world shattered. Most of us will lose our parents in our 50s and 60s but these two lost one mum 60 or so years ahead of other kids their age. That loss will be with them their entire life.”
Talking to Lorna has given John insight into what his tamariki / children are going through. He can chat with her about progress and ask questions. “I tell her what’s going on and she helps me to understand what the boys are experiencing from their perspective. This is immensely valuable to a parent. During my eldest son’s first round of therapy, the guidance Lorna gave on what to do and how to answer his questions was so helpful. Be honest, don’t sugar coat it, be age appropriate, and be consistent with the messages coming from everyone - me, grandma and grandpa, the school, everyone - so there is no confusion for the boys.”
The importance of Kenzie’s Gift
John admits that they would not be where they are today had it not been for Kenzie’s Gift.
“If you’d asked me at the outset would my oldest son still be seeing Lorna when he’s nine, I’d have said, ‘No he’ll be fine!’ and if you’d asked if my youngest would be needing support now too, I would’ve said the same. I know now that as the kids get older, they become more aware, and their grief journey changes. My youngest son’s response to Becky’s death was delayed. He was doing OK until the age of 7 and then he asked to see Lorna because he was ‘missing Mummy’.”
Both boys value their time with Lorna. “They get a lot out of their sessions. It may be on a subconscious level, but I can see the improvements, little changes in behaviour, as they go forward with her. It’s obvious they are working through whatever is bugging them at a certain point in time. I don’t sit down and have conversations about what they do with Lorna because the time they spend with her is their time.”
John describes Becky as ‘immensely fun to be around’ and a great māmā / mum, always putting everyone else first, so considerate of others. “If it was a sunny day, she’d want to get out and do something. She never wasted a day. She’d make pancakes for the boys every weekend, one of many little rituals that they loved. She was a very giving and loving person, always showing that love and affection for all three of her boys.”
The weekend pancakes are John’s to cook now. They remember Becky’s birthday with a special meal, and the anniversary of her death is ‘Mummy’s Day’. “It’s like Mother’s Day but for Becky. We’ve always believed this should not be a sad day but rather one to celebrate.”
Another remembrance is a ‘Christmas bauble’, an ornament for the tree with a picture of māmā / mum inside, a treasured decoration that travelled with John and the boys to the UK one year so that Becky could be part of the festive whānau celebrations.
Looking to the future
John is determined that Becky’s death should not be a stigma for his sons to carry, a taboo subject for the whānau. He mentions her in everyday conversation with comments like, ‘You are so like your mum when you do this’, and his willingness to talk about Becky and her death has paid off with the boys. “My sons are reminded almost daily that they don’t have a mother. The work with Lorna in the playroom has given the boys the ammunition to process the reality of Becky’s death and they are comfortable talking about it. The challenges are ongoing, but Lorna has given them strong foundations for how to feel and recognise what the loss of their Mum means to them.”
John often recalls the conversation he had with his eldest son after Becky died. “I had to tell a four-year-old that his mum was gone. Put yourself in that position. Part of my role is to support two people whose worlds have been shattered at such a young age and build them into strong, well-rounded people.”
“I didn’t know about Kenzie’s Gift at the time. Now, I can say that people like Lorna provide the foundation the enables you to support your children on the journey that faces them.”
“Kenzie’s Gift knows that dealing with grief at the time is important but so is the provision of support throughout the journey because grief continues into adulthood and beyond. Supporting your children for that entire journey is so important. Kenzie’s Gift doesn’t put a time frame around that and how long it may take. I cannot emphasise enough how important that is.”
“Kenzie’s Gift doesn’t shy away from the fact that parents die, that grief is a long journey, everyone needs support, and children need it most of all. All three of us would not be in the position we are now had it not been for Kenzie’s Gift. I know I am able to give the boys the support they need on their journey, and I also know that it’s not all on me to do that.”
“Kenzie’s Gift has taken away some of the emotional and financial burden: therapy isn’t cheap, and children can need it for a long time. As we enter a global recession and times get tougher, I want to be sure Kenzie’s Gift exists for other families, going forward.”
“Kenzie’s Gift offers access to something you would find exceptionally difficult to provide for your kids. The value of this service to families is enormous. We are one of the lucky families. There are many who don’t even know Kenzie’s Gift can help and are trying to do this all on their own. I can’t imagine what that is like.”
If you’d like to support the valuable work that Kenzie’s Gift does, and the life-changing impacts we have on young Kiwis like John’s sons, please consider donating.