Living to tell the tale

I spoke today at Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and RMIT Forum for International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction  #IDDRR on personal stories of death and survival #LiveToTell

I have been privileged, having been with many people, as they have taken their last breath, and passed from this world to the next. As a nurse, you are often there; the last face a frightened, pleading eyes see as a ruptured aorta pours blood into their chest, as tumour riddled, pain wracked hands around yours seek escape, as a family turn to you as The System and shout “is that it, can’t you do anymore?”, as your own mother calmly takes one last breath and is at rest. I had a death on my first shift as a trainee nurse, unprepared. Since then, I’ve never shied away from it. But equally I don’t seek it out.

In working as a recovery manager, my interaction with death is different. With the survivors. Those that have cheated death, and those that are left behind to deal with the aftermath. The loss, the holes, the gaps, the pain, the anger, the tears, the dark humour, the frustration.

Death is an increasingly foreign concept for us in modern society. We expect to die in our sleep surrounded by our grandchildren. It is not the experience that our parents and grandparents had , who lost mothers and sisters in childbirth, sons and daughters to childhood illnesses, brothers to industrial accidents, fathers to road accidents, and of course fathers, sons, brothers, uncles to war. Compare the front pages of The Age now to 1914 when soldiers die. One is a front page obituary, the other a list. In our technological age,  we have drastically reduced risk, and we expect someone to fix it (partly because we are so good at fixing things and trumpeting how we fix them). So when death happens now, it is a surprise to us. Our societal reactions are overt, all consuming. Think Bali, Black Saturday.

We tend characterise disasters by death tolls, cricket scores, as my colleague Tom Bamforth calls them, in his book Deep Field. Of course, they are much more than that, but this is what people focus upon; media, politicians, onlookers, emergency managers. I recall in one of the big exercise I was involved in as the state recovery manager, as the exercise manager dialled up the scores with glee (a 747 laden with anthrax crashing into a public housing tower) making the comment to the group, let us not forget these numbers are not that, they are mothers, daughters, brothers, uncles, colleagues, friends, classmates, teammates, and neighbours and there is a story behind each on of them. Most of the participants looked at me blankly. I think (hope) we have come a long way since then.

Deaths in disasters are violent, disturbing, and occur in desperate, horrifying circumstances. Sometimes the way people died suggests pain, terror, and loneliness. Thinking of this makes coming to terms with the fact of death itself far more difficult and complex. Often people swing between horror and grief[1].

Our society has a rather simplistic view of disasters, losers and winners. The winners survive, the losers die. It’s not so simple. Those of us whose lives are inextricably linked to disasters, we operate in the shades of grey, not 50, the nuance. Those left behind have to deal with the aftermath, as do those that survived. But society has formed a hierarchy of grief, of importance, as Anne Eyre, the great English sociologist, and Hillsborough survivor describes it. Ultimate importance is placed on those that paid the “highest sacrifice”, above any other experience. No two experience are the same, and all are valid. I observed this with my work after Bali. Accusation and counter accusation “You didn’t lose anyone” met with “But you weren’t there”

Stories of survival are celebrated, held up, feted. As they should. But they come at a cost, and that is a reality TV show. In the quietest moments, when the events relive themselves, when you thought you were going to die, you in fact did, in one way, as you say goodbye to the world. Thinking you are going to die is a significant predictor of post traumatic stress. But people will tell you were lucky, or someone was looking after you, or at least you survived, think about those that didn’t. And your experience is diminished. You feel you have no rights.

Control is taken away from you. You can’t put your hand on their brow, visit the site at which they fell, until you are allowed to. You may never be able to bury them, as there is no body, and this leaves you with an uncomfortable gnawing “what if”. You may also have no rights, as your former husband, who doesn’t talk to you, does not pass on any information. You may receive information, and you just don’t understand it, bushfire brain having set in, the heady mix of adrenaline and cortisol clouding everything you do. You have no idea what they would have wanted. You may find out that they have a whole other family, you never knew about. You may ask yourself, how did this happen?

After a disaster, your grief is not your own. You have to share it with a public part horrified, part fascinated. You mourn in the full view of the public, with the Mourners-in-chief. The inquisition, the intrusion, holds your grief in a place that is not usual. Then all of a sudden. A football crisis, a political crisis, a cat video, and it has been whisked from the public eye. Then it is something to be shelved, popped away. “Aren’t you over that yet”

I worked with a group of bereaved survivors from Black Saturday to produce a book “Surviving Traumatic Grief: When loved ones die in a disaster” This book is a how to guide, by people for people, in their own words. The 21 contributors reflected on their own experience, and wanted to share it to help others. They felt that if they had something to read or someone close to them could read, then this would have made a huge difference. It was a pretty powerful process.

To think about what is at stake, we need to deliver beyond the cricket scores of deaths, homes lost, and grants paid. These social costs are human stories, in households, streets, neighbourhoods and towns;

Of mothers saying goodbye to their sons, hearing the windows break, as the flames engulf them.

Of a man inside his house, ringed by fire, thinking that this is it. Only for it to go quiet, and the fire disappeared. Weeks later at a community event, trying to make sense of what happened, with others, he was overheard by an Aircrane pilot “ah, that was your house”

Of a son separated from his parents, makes it to safety on the football ground. His parents, take another route, shelter in a building that provides them no shelter, found in a bathroom, hands entwined.

Of a couple who said, “I thought we were prepared, until I saw the fire front. I’m never, ever doing that again, it’s too fucking scary”.

Of a mother and son pushed by rampaging seawater towards the ceiling of the villa in Phuket, saying a silent farewell as the last centimetre of air approaches, only for the water to recede.

Of a seven month pregnant woman, struggling through a smoke and heat, falling just a short kick from the football oval, and certain safety. When you stand on that spot, marked by a little blue tape, just days after the firestorm, you question absolutely everything.

There are many stories of death and survival. These are the stories that get me out of bed, that drive me, as they should drive us all, to make a difference, to enable everyone to live to tell the tale.

[1] Westall, C, Evans V, Brown, G McMahon, C Bateman, V Giljohann, A, Norrish, A Mosely, G and Richardson, J  Surviving Traumatic Grief Sue Evans Foundation


7 thoughts on “Living to tell the tale

  1. John, a beautiful sunny morning and a beautiful piece. You made me cry thinking about some of the families and people you (subtly) acknowledged. But I agree that it is important that we reflect often and keep this deep purpose in our minds as we do the work we do.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Deb, I’m just back from a swim in the bay on this stunning morning, makes me feel glad to be alive . Yes, in the in it’s all about the people, and their stories and we have to hold this central to what we do. Hope you are well!


  2. John, I wish I was there to hear you tell this story. I have asked our RFS Library to get a coupe of copies of the book.

    As you describe, these stories are extremely important for those affected and those around them.

    My experience with Black Saturday comes from a very different angle – from the safety of being part of the Multi-Agency Research Teams deployed within 2 days of the event.

    On many occasions – as late as last week – I have said to fellow RFS Members that it was a privilege to be part of those Teams. And as the designated ‘community person’ to this day I can recall all of the individuals, couples and families I interviewed.

    And your post describes two events that I became very close to with that work.

    Thank you for your post. Can I reblog it on my site?


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