Last Friday, I was privileged to speak at the Sands conference in Christchurch, supporting the Life Events team from DIA. We were there to launch a site designed to support bereaved parents.

That site is Whetūrangitia, and I'm very proud of having had a part in how this work was begun and being asked to support it.

The theme of the conference was "Rebuilding your Life" and it was a privilege to hear from speakers such as Jane Weekes and David Tipene-Leach as well as midwives, social workers and bereaved parents.


Tēnā koutou katoa,
Mai te pūtake tae noa ki te taumata.
Ko Nabukelevu te maunga.

Kaua e huri to tuara ki te au o te awa.
Ko Drekenikelo te awa.

E ū mai ai te waka o Blundell ki Ōtepoti.
Ko Ōtepoti te ūngā.
Ko Blundell te waka.

E tatai-hono te hapū o Kong.
Ki te iwi o Whītī.
Ko Kong te hapū.
Ko ngati Whītī te iwi.

Ko Timoci Fraser Kong toku ingoa.
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

I would like to acknowledge my birth in this land, and the heritage of my mother’s whānau, that of South Canterbury but originally of Scotland, also of my father and his Fijian and Chinese heritage.

I would like to acknowledge my mother, who trained as a midwife in Melbourne, who raised three sons and a daughter and who alongside my father has given a life of service and care, with the first 18 years in Thailand and then 20 years supporting international families who chose to make Ōtautahi the place to educate their children.

I would like to acknowledge each of you - for the roles you play in your communities and the mahi you do alongside families each day in a space that demands much and returns much - work that is often unseen and that we as a society are not often comfortable having a conversation about.

Previous to this role I was a classroom teacher for a decade, and I felt that as a society we place an undue burden on that profession by referring to them as “heroes”.

In the course of a teacher’s career, they may be called on to act with courage and occasionally heroism, but I believe as a society we could more fully support them by lifting them up in their places, giving and creating for them the space to do what they can do, in the communities they work within.

In my current role at the Service Innovation Lab I seek to help people across multiple Crown agencies imagine possibilities and future states. We did that in this process, and I’m so stoked to be here see Whetūrangitia be launched. I believe in how we approached the mahi, in how we worked with many parties to do so, and in the fact that it is only the start.

This work was led by the voices of SANDS representatives, some of whom are here today. It had a clear mandate to honour te ao Māori in the design and delivery and was done by listening to bereaved parents, - their stories, their insights and their honesty. Lastly it was done by working alongside other Crown agencies

As one person who has been part of this korero, I wanted to reflect on a few key points that from my perspective have helped us get here today.

“How can we help?”

This work began with a coffee and a conversation between Vicki, Becky and myself. After listening to and learning from Vicki, about the various layers of pain she’d experienced and seen as someone supporting bereaved parents, I asked this question. “How can we help?”

At that time I’d only been working in government about 2 months, so I honestly didn’t realise that it’s not usually what government agencies ask.

It was an honest, very human query – if we had the opportunity to work together as the Crown, and with bereaved parents, and those who support them, how could we help.

Her reply was something along the lines of “A lot of my time is spent unpacking incorrect information on social media platforms. If we could make it easier to make sense of what was available, and what parents can do - that would be amazing.”

And so we went from there.

But it all started with a coffee, a cup of tea and an honest question.There is power in that, and we need to keep having purposeful cups of tea. To hear from each other and ask after each other.

Whakawhanaungatanga

In our first hui we created the time for everyone in the room to share their story, their reason for being in the room. We allowed people to speak to their experience as bereaved parents, as whanau, as sisters, aunties, brothers and friends. In doing so we sought to relate to each other at a deeper, more personal level than just being a representative of our job title or employer.

On a personal note, this process helped me, to speak my own story, to myself.

To acknowledge my second child.
At 13 weeks, the system calls it a miscarriage. And provides a medical response.

In being part of this process - I’ve been able to say to myself that they died.
I never knew them.
And I have two beautiful daughters now.
But I miss them. And the life they may have had.
And that’s OK.

In a small way, being able to say that, even just to myself, as a result of this whakawhanaungatanga, has helped me heal a little bit.

We made those connections, those stories the starting point for all of our work. We sought to honour the connections, and the giving of those stories from those in the room.

This took time, but it mattered. It continues to matter, and has been central to how we’ve engaged at each step of this process. This must continue. If we’re to develop services that matter to families and citizens of Aotearoa.

We need to keep building connections. With each other, in our places and spaces. Openly and honestly. This can be challenging, but it is, I believe, worth the effort.

Government isn’t whānau

Government services are often designed and delivered to citizens. We call it needs based, or entitlement based, and we'll usually make you fill out an application form.

This bias informs all of our service design and customer service.
This bias has meant by extension we haven’t as the Crown engaged in conversations with whānau about what grief is and how we can support it.

Vicki shared with us at the first hui, the perspective of a bereaved Dad:

“When my daughter died, we went home from the hospital. It took us a week before we realised no-one was going to call. I realised then, there’s no Plunket for dead children”

That statement rocked me, and I think it’s a powerful challenge to that bias.

Because how can the Crown provide a service for a child that is no longer present.

How can, and how should the Crown design or provide any new service for bereaved parents, when the reality is that these parents are in such grief that they struggle to comprehend how to begin navigating the numerous Crown services that are actually available.

Grief is by definition an intensely personal experience.
That we share with those closest to us. Those who we choose to reach out too.

The Crown needs to honour that space.

Holding to this concept, means we can re imagine how Crown services are shaped. It means we can examine what we currently provide in a new light. It means we can explain Crown procedures and processes with better clarity. It means we can be more accessible.

If I’m honest, at times it means we, the Crown, need to get out of the way.

Grief is a part of life, honour the experience

In our first hui, the concept of whanau pani, was shared with the group. This concept is part of tangihanga, and describes the process by which those in grief, in this case the bereaved parents, are allowed to be in grief, while those they trust, their whanau pani, will do what is required to help them to navigate this time and space.

A key point about this approach is that the ability of those in grief to make decisions is never taken from them. The choices are brought to them, and they are empowered to make the decisions they need to do for their child.

Thus this site, this service is for those acting as whānau pani, it is a service to enable parents to be in grief, and to empower them at their time of greatest pain.

It’s not about removing grief, it’s about honouring the experience.

To be whānau pani, to be bereaved and to be the one doing the support work...

This takes strength.  Unimaginable strength. Heroism even.

And to my mind, as the Crown, we need to do better at serving those who provide support. To enable them. To empower them to do the mahi that's needed when supporting those in grief. When they themselves may be in grief.

To lift them up.
To lift you up.

As I said earlier, this is only a start. In that sense, today is a pause, to share this work, to hear from you.

Of course, there is much still to do, more conversations to be had, and connections to be made. But I believe with this approach and what we've learnt, we have started from a good place, a useful place. We look forward to continuing to share this conversation and shaping this and other services, and to continuing to finding better ways to serve.

A shout out to Sam and Kasia, Becky and Adele for all their efforts and heart in this really busy few months. Thank you to the Catalyst team for their mad digital skills. Thank you to Ray and Pou Arihi for this beautiful name. Thank you to our colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, IR, MoH, and MBIE for their contributions.

Thank you to Pania, to Melanie, to Josie, to Lisa, to Vicki, to JJ, to Erich, to each of those bereaved parents and those in our hui, who trusted us enough to share their stories. I hope we’ve honoured them appropriately.

And you know who to call if we have not.

Our thanks again to each of you, for holding and making spaces for whanau to be in grief - for walking alongside them for the times that you do.

We see you.
We honour you.

Thank you.


The title for this post comes from a Fijian proverb:

"Na bula e vaka oqo: Ena so naguana ena cila na siga, ena so naguana ena tau na uca"

Life is like this: sometimes sun, and rain.

Sands Conference Presentation 2019