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The Aboriginal church gets overloaded by funerals

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In this article Mark Kickett, a Noongar man from, Noongar Whadjuk and also Balardong country shares about the pressures faced by ministers and Aboriginal churches as they live in the reality of lower Indigenous life expectancy.

We know from the statistics that there is a gap in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australia. In Wilcannia at one stage the gap between an Aboriginal and non-aboriginal person was up to about 18 -19 years, and for the women it was about 15. So I buried a lot of guys when I was working there. Some were in their 20’s 30’s and 40’s. I can only think of two or three that might have been over 60.

A time of sorrow and grief

When someone dies in a community, people travel to where the family of the dead person is. It is a bit different in the City but it's mainly still the same. The first thing you must do is to go to the person who has just lost their loved one. There is a protocol where you sit and spend time with the family, you share your loss, you shed your tears. For Noongar people we may sit for a few hours before we feel we can move on. There is a constant stream of people coming through at this time as well.

In terms of accommodation you flow in with whoever. Someone will always have an open door. “You’re right, come and camp over here,” they will say. So, you’ll have mattresses or sleep on the floors, or out the back depending on how cold it might be. Everyone opens their doors and welcomes everyone in.

In some areas it’s a bit different in terms of length of time between the death and the funeral. I know within NSW burials can happen within that week. It doesn’t happen like that in WA. It could go anywhere from two weeks to four weeks. That is because you have a week of mourning, a week of allowing people to travel to share their love and respect and to sit with you. You do not talk about funeral arrangements during this time. It's just about that time of sorrow and grief where you sit and cry.

Then the following week you begin to talk about funeral arrangements and of course for many of our communities there has to be fundraising because many people are not in funeral plans. A lot of our people do not plan to die because they are busy surviving for today. We live for today, we struggle for today, we survive for today, we try to find money for today. So, death doesn’t come into it. Many do not have funeral plans.

Mark Kickett
Mark Kickett

I remember once my old Uncle Sealan was doing a funeral, I had seen him parked at a church in Guilford (Perth) and I know there was a funeral but I was going to another one in the (Perth) hills. As that funeral started I turned around and I was surprised to see him standing there. I said to him “What are you doing here Uncle?” And he said, “Well we had the funeral ready. Everyone came but the funeral director wouldn’t bring the body because it wasn’t paid for.” They had to cancel the funeral with everyone all there ready to go. That has become more common lately. We do not plan to die and unfortunately it is hard trying to pull money together because dying is a very expensive business.

Everyone chips in and helps feed everyone. There is tea and coffee and stews. A lot of our families will make big pots of food and take them over when they know there is going to be a lot of people. There is a great banding together of community and people to give support through that time.

When there is a funeral in our church (Uniting Aboriginal & Islander Christian Congress) we try to provide the basics stuff of milk, sugar, tea and bread and biscuits because we know people will be coming and sitting. This is just to take a bit of stress off the grieving families. One of the things our people do well, getting around and providing that food support.

The Aboriginal church gets overloaded. As they try to continue to care for people who are grieving a loved one they have got to move on to the next one, and then on to the next one. The first family back there is in many ways isolated (apart from their own family that surround them).

The Aboriginal church gets overloaded.

I think deep in my heart a lot of our people have a sense that the church is a significant place even though it might not be their favourite place because of past history. Some might have intense hatred for the church but there is also a sense that the church is a place where they can get help. Especially from the Aboriginal church. But we know the journey. We have been on that journey ourselves and we know that there needs to be support around people and they need to know that they are loved and cared for.

The Aboriginal church gets overloaded. As they try to continue to care for people who are grieving a loved one they have got to move on to the next one, and then on to the next one. The first family back there is in many ways isolated (apart from their own family that surround them).

It would be good to have something that the church could offer that is productive and is engaging and helping people to heal. I think we need to do a lot more thinking around that. There needs to be work done on how we, as a church, begin to deal with this issue. We need to have something that we can offer to people and through that be able to train others to be involved so that they can follow through. We need tools we can give people so that they can work with families. We need to help particularly from a spiritual healing point of view so people are not self-medicating with alcohol and drugs.

I would like to see our local churches have a really good focus on a program of how they care for people. We do it automatically in many ways but I think that we need to have a bit more of a systematic way in which we do that.

Ultimately, I tend to think that the church will be a place in which a person can come into, be a part of, and find healing and nurture that will help sustain them. Help them in their life and hopefully a bit of purpose to keep moving on.

Who cares for the carer?

At one stage I was doing funerals nearly on a weekly basis. Particularly around the Broken Hill, Wilcannia area. I reckon I’ve buried a good portion, maybe a third, of the people that are in the Wilcannia cemetery and many young people and middle aged. There were quite a number of suicides and the tragic deaths of little ones... This all brings a great amount of grief and tragedy into the families.

Back in my home area of WA when a close family member passes away I am the go-to person. It takes its toll on you as an individual, especially when you have a close family member die and are dealing with it constantly. Who cares for the carer? That’s been a problem for us. But you need to give that love and respect to the people whose hearts are broken and who are struggling with the trauma... the sad part is that often times you do not get that support.

I will give you an example. Toward the end of last year one of my old aunties passed away and we had to bury her back in Perth. She had a son, my younger cousin, and he did 10 years in custody and we were all excited, looking forward to when he would get out. He finally got out on Boxing Day to New Year’s Day. He enjoyed 80 days out in the community and he died of a massive heart attack so we had that terrible loss there (with my aunty) but then the incredible shock of this guy who had done 10 years - had come out and had a whole new purpose in life. His family had grown up. Things were ready to blossom and move forward and then he died... so the impact of that is right upon us.

There are constant stories like that. When I was in my late teens, my grandmother and her older son died on the same day. Two days prior to that her second oldest son had died. Grief and loss are something that are constantly upon Aboriginal people.

Loss of land, culture and identity

I think that in Aboriginal communities, particularly those that have been heavily colonised and heavily impacted upon, there is a hurt and a grief and a loss because of loss of land and culture. Out of that has grown a loss of identity, particularly for the Aboriginal male. His authority as a man and as an initiated man, as a warrior, as a leader, as a provider have been taken away.

I still remember the days when my own father, grandfather and uncles had to get permission to go from one farm to another to work. And if I they didn’t have that permission or if they had finished work and were on the street after 6:00 PM they would be locked up. Then you had a male get taken away out of his family, and jail, and the authorities and police became an everyday reality for Aboriginal communities and particularly Aboriginal men.

I have done a lot of work in Wilcannia, (Wilcannia is a wonderful place - a highly misunderstood and misrepresented place...) but you can get a cyclic sort of thing where the male is taken out of the community for one reason or another, whatever offending, and often times they are petty offences, but they will get locked away for petty offending. Then it becomes a regular occurrence. So, the male then begins to find his support network and identity within the jail system and the same with the kids in the juvenile system, (it seems to me like a rite of passage at times).

The male comes out and if he’s done a number of laggings [stints in prison] then the next time he goes to court it just gets longer. They might do 2 - 3 years in custody then they come out. During that time families have grown. Mum or grandmother have taken on leadership roles and provider responsibilities and they run the show. Or another male might have come in as well. So, the male comes out and there may be a honeymoon period for a little while... But then, even though he has promised in custody that he has changed and he is going to get a job and he is going to do this and that, within a very short space of time they are back in the same old groove. Then nothing is happening on pension day, you get drunk and the violence starts and there it goes. So, the male has lost his capacity to lead.

And consequently, out of that there are a lot of drugs and we have lost a lot of young men dying early. We also have a community constantly in grief that is leaderless as well and that is struggling and you have women who are emerging (as leaders) but also wanting the male to be a part of that community.

Then you have grandmothers who are trying to bring up children and many of our grandparents have already lived their life but they have to live it again through their kid’s kids and often times the new generation is so entrenched in the whole drug culture that the violence comes back onto the grandparents. Maybe a parent has died as well so the kids are constantly living in their everyday struggle of survival and trying to make sense of their world.

The outside world doesn’t quite get it and I think that a lot of it reflects back on the status that Aboriginal people have. When we talk about reconciliation and all this sort of stuff we never had a close connection. There never really has been a close connection and Aboriginal people are seeking to find their way through all the struggles and through all the mazes of life and the challenges that that brings. Unfortunately, “self-medicating” is a big thing. Alcohol and drugs become a significant part of the coping mechanism for a lot of our people.

Losing a family member impacts your whole psyche. Then when you have to face the loss of another family member and you haven’t developed skills enough for you to be able to face the world again to take the challenges of the knock-backs... and the self-medication can become a part of that and then another person passes away...

What does the NAIDOC theme “Because of her we can” say about men in this space?

The NAIDOC theme “Because of her we can” reflects how Aboriginal men are sidelined unless you are a sports person. The Aboriginal sports person, be that football, rugby league, soccer or whatever - they are absolutely idolised. In many communities they are like a god - but that’s probably about it. The reality is that it is the mothers and grandmothers that are providing and caring and nurturing.

The NAIDOC theme reflects a lot of what happens in Aboriginal communities and we need to honour the mothers but I think it does say something else about the absence of those strong men. Grandfathers don’t live to a ripe old age. Same with the fathers.

My strength, as a minister, lies in the fact that I have a caring heart. I believe that I do have that. And I attempt to speak into the heart of the grieving person... particularly if it has been a really traumatic loss of a loved one.

People are broken and I can't tell them that they have done the wrong thing [referring to suicide] and that they need to come to Jesus. They do not want to hear that! They want to find some sort of healing and understanding out of it. It's their heart that is absolutely broken and it's my job to hopefully find some way to find some healing and some purpose and mending.

It’s not going to happen overnight, so I tend to regularly drop in and visit to see how people are tracking. In terms of caring for yourself... that is one of the struggles I have because you are the one that they all come to. And you just keep going and going and it takes its toll... so we have also got to find a way to care for our carers as well.

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Mark Kickett is a Noongar man from, Noongar Whadjuk and also Balardong country. He works as the State Development and Outreach Coordinator at Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in South Australia.