Real Life

The devastating loss that brought these Kiwi mums together

You don’t get over it – you learn to live your life a different way.

It can be something as fleeting as a couple of bars of music that triggers the tears for Belinda Tafua.

For Johneen Atkinson, it’s not so much music any more but a more tangible prompt, the area around Lake Dunstan, which brings on the raw emotion.

Sitting side by side on a sofa at Belinda’s Auckland home, the two women, who are both in their 60s, have an easy rapport, a closeness that suggests a long-held friendship.

However, it’s not a childhood bond these two share but the heartbreak of losing a child. The pair met each other in 2007 through a bereaved parents’ support group, run by the North Shore Hospice.

Belinda, who has suffered a double tragedy – her daughter Rosemary died at birth and her son Michael was killed in a car accident at 21 – was a founding member of the group.

Michael Tafua died in a car accident aged just 21.
Michael Tafua died in a car accident aged just 21.

Johneen was there to try to make sense of the drowning of her 22-year-old son Andrew, an identical twin. He had been swimming with friends and had jumped off a bridge over the Waikato River. Andrew had made the jump many times before, but that time, he landed badly on the back of his neck.

They are now sharing their very personal and searingly painful stories, along with five other women, in a recently published book, A Piece of My Heart, in the hope it will help other grieving parents to rebuild their lives.

They are quick to point out they are not experts, nor do they want to take the place of experts, emphasising instead their “ordinariness”.

“There’s no prescriptive grief in it,” says Belinda. “It doesn’t tell you how to grieve. It’s just us telling our stories.”

Adds Johneen, “Every one of us had books on grief written by academics or experts given to us by well-meaning friends.

"What they say is true, but they often just don’t ring any bells. You often just flick through them looking for the stories of the ‘real’ people they used to illustrate their points.”

Andrew Atkinson drowned when he was only 22.
Andrew Atkinson drowned when he was only 22.

Each of the stories is different, but also the same, she says.

“Each person is unique in how they react. At the beginning, I thought I was going mad...Hopefully readers will be able to identify with some of what’s in the book and make sense of their own worlds because they will have been turned upside down.”

While they agree the writing process was, in a way, cathartic, they also say the pain of losing a child never goes away. Belinda’s son Michael died in 1996, Johneen’s in 2007. Talking about them now still evokes enormous amounts of sadness. That, too, they stress is normal.

“Michael died 20 years ago,” says Belinda. “Even now, there are still things, it might be a certain light during the day or it might be a song and the tears start welling up. You don’t get over it – you learn to live your life a different way.”

Belinda and Johneen met in 2007 at a support group.
Belinda and Johneen met in 2007 at a support group.

The book is divided into 14 chapters, from the first 24 hours after the deaths through to anniversaries, and it also discusses the effects on other family members and on relationships.

Both Johneen and Belinda’s husbands left jobs. Michael Tafua Snr was a police officer at the time and Peter Atkinson a hospice chaplain.

Michael, says Belinda, couldn’t understand why the criminals he had to deal with every day were living, while his beloved son, “who had never done anything bad”, was dead. Peter, meanwhile, found it difficult to counsel bereaved people, while at the same time grieving himself.

The impact on the women’s other children was huge too.

It took James Tafua, who was only seven when Michael died, several years before he was able to discuss the death. And for identical twin David Atkinson, it’s been, as his mother puts it, “a difficult journey”, with birthdays and anniversaries particularly hard.

Co-authors (from left) Johneen, Belinda, Anne Green, Donna Porter, Robyn Sievwright and Julie Cameron.
Co-authors (from left) Johneen, Belinda, Anne Green, Donna Porter, Robyn Sievwright and Julie Cameron.

“It’s bittersweet really. As a family, we want to celebrate David’s birthday, but there’s always that shadow – it’s Andrew’s as well,” explains Johneen.

Despite their shared tragedies, the friends, who offer each other frequent reassurances throughout the interview with the Weekly, have also written about some of their less dark moments, saying that despite the seriousness of the topic, their children would have wanted them to move on.

“And I mention that in the book,” says Belinda. “We have choices. We can choose to stay where we are and not move forward or we can say to ourselves, ‘What would our kids be saying to us?’ I say it to myself all the time and Michael would be saying, ‘Come on, Mum, get out there, try to make a difference – and make me proud.’”

“But it’s hard. If I could have five minutes to have Michael sitting here, to say, ‘I love you.’ You wish, wish, wish… It never goes away.”

Words: Julie Jacobson

A Piece of My Heart, edited by Rae McGregor and published by Adrienne Morris, is available from apieceofmyheart.co.nz.

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