“Everyone has an opinion about how to give birth to your kids, raise them and how to best support them during a time of grief and bereavement. It was great to have Kenzie’s Gift and their therapist, this one person I could trust to give me good advice and hold my hand so I could give my kids the best support and outcomes.” Julia Black
Most New Zealanders will know that song, the one with a chorus beginning, ‘For today, I remember your smile …’
The song ‘For Today’ by the Dunedin band Netherworld Dancing Toys leapt to the heights of the Aotearoa music charts in 1985, propelled in no small part by their frontman, Malcolm Black. Moving on from a career as a professional musician, Malcolm forged ahead within the music industry as an entertainment lawyer, record company executive and manager of some well-known Aotearoa musicians. His contribution to the music industry in this country is the stuff of legend. A man of great integrity, Malcolm was kind, gentle, considered and fair, respected for always doing the right thing by people.
In 2017, Malcolm and his wife Julia flew to Dunedin for the Apra Silver Scroll Music Awards. Malcolm had a sore puku / stomach, but they made the trip anyway. A few days later, after tests, scans and hospital visits, the couple received the news that Malcolm had a large tumour blocking his bowel and causing the pain. The mate pukupuku / cancer had already spread to his liver and lungs and the prognosis was grim. Malcolm had about nine months to live.
After Malcolm’s diagnosis
“Our whole world was tipped upside down,” says Julia. “We had four children, two from Malcolm’s previous marriage (adult girls) and Cilla and Martha, our youngest daughters. Martha was 20 months and Cilla was a few weeks away from her fifth birthday and starting school. They were so little.”
Malcolm and Julia chose not to hide anything from their tamariki / children. “It felt natural to include the children in the process from day one. He was so sick from diagnosis onwards and it was easier and less stressful than hiding. It was full on. The children were involved in Malcolm’s treatment, he talked to them about how he felt and listened to what they had to say. We tried to use everyday examples of birth, life and death so they would not fear it when it happened for Malcolm.
“We didn’t talk about time and how long Malcolm might live because nobody really knows for sure when they are going to die even though they gave us these indicative time frames. As it turned out, Malcolm was diagnosed in September of 2017 and died 18 months later. Malcolm was so honest. We did a lot of grieving together and there were no unanswered questions. We did everything we possibly could to give him as much time, and the best quality of life, that we could.”
The final weeks
Malcolm spent his final weeks in Auckland hōhipere / hospital with the whānau camped out beside him. The tamariki / children came in after kura / school, spent the night, and tīpuna / grandparents collected them in the mornings to take them back to kura / school.
“The only time the children were not there was the night Malcolm died. It was difficult because his death was so physical, not being able to breathe. Having the children with us was very distressing for him as a parent and, I had imagined, for them. We also didn’t realise he would die that night.”
Julia had heard about Kenzie’s Gift and wanted to be proactive where the health and wellbeing of her young tamariki / children, particularly Cilla, was concerned.
“I spoke to the Kenzie’s Gift therapist about a week after Malcolm died. She couldn’t see us right away but made herself available to me on the phone and gave me some helpful advice. I couldn’t be more grateful to her for being with us so early on in the process. Everyone has an opinion about how to give birth to your kids, raise them and how to best support them during a time of grief and bereavement. It was great to have Kenzie’s Gift and their therapist, this one person I could trust to give me good advice and hold my hand so I could give my kids the best support and outcomes. People would say to me, ‘You need to talk to someone yourself’ and I did try but my check-ins with her for the children were far more useful to me because my primary concern was for them.”
Cilla’s Kenzie’s Gift journey
Cilla began seeing the therapist once a week on a Friday morning. Martha was too young at the time, but the therapist encouraged Julia to let her know if she noticed any changes in Martha’s behaviour. Cilla was now six, Martha three and Julia’s other two daughters were in their 20s.
“Cilla had a deep sadness. She and her father were so close. Sometimes she didn’t want to go to school. It’s common for children to fear the death of the surviving parent so leaving me was hard for her. They were glued to me and wouldn’t go to anyone else, not even their big sisters. I felt like Cilla needed to talk to someone openly and freely as it was clear she was trying to protect me, be strong and brave for me. She was aware of my sadness and didn’t want to add to that so she suppressed her own feelings.”
The therapist saw Cilla regularly and caught up with Julia too, meetings that provided an opportunity to talk through any problems and for Julia to raise her concerns.
Sessions have ended for Cilla and she is managing well, knowing that she can always return if she needs to. “Martha was so young when Malcolm died. The therapist said if ever I felt Martha wasn’t developing as a five-year-old should, then I could get in touch. Martha’s memories aren’t as strong but she does fall apart and the emotions that come out are from deep within. I don’t think she really knows what they are so I keep a close eye on her. The goal is the same for Martha and Cilla: for them to feel safe in the world outside of me.”
The benefits to Cilla of therapy provided by Kenzie’s Gift were obvious. “The therapist reinforced to Cilla that it was OK to be open and free with her emotions and that her dad, whilst he is not physically alive, is still very much a part of our day to day and that’s OK. Cilla now has tools and skills she can use when she feels down, allowing her to feel safe in the world outside of me.”
Cilla’s kura / school had supported another whānau through a time of grief two years earlier so they had experience supporting bereaved tamariki / children. The therapist passed on tips to help Cilla get back into kura / school life and one was of particular value. “She suggested I give Cilla my business card to keep in her pocket so she could show that to her teacher if she needed to speak to me or come home. This simple tool meant she didn’t have to explain what was going on.”
Julia was grateful that Kenzie’s Gift was there for her and the tamariki / children. “The services were available to us at a time when I could barely function. I am eternally grateful that Cilla had the regular contact and relationship with someone at such a vulnerable moment in her life. She is now in the best position emotionally that she could be, given the card she’s been dealt.
“It’s huge and it’s every day. It was so valuable to have someone I trusted, a person who knew what they were talking about. I’ve had friends say to me, ‘Oh you’re dreaming if you think that your children are not destroyed by what has happened even if they are happily playing!’ I would talk to the therapist and she explained, ‘If children have something on their minds, they’ll tell you and then they’ll go, ‘What’s for dinner?’’
The tamariki / children have set up a small shrine to Malcolm at home. “We have his ashes there, his radiation masks, drawings, leaves, stones and other things the children collect all get piled up on top. They spend time there, talk to him if something has happened, show him things. He is still very much a part of our day. We say good morning to him, and someone might ask, ‘What do you think Dad is doing now?’ and the answer might be, ‘Yoga’. He was the most exceptional father and husband and we miss him terribly.”
To see if Kenzie’s Gift can help your whānau through some of life’s toughest times, get in touch.