The Influence of Narrative Therapy in my Work with Aboriginal Communities

I was first introduced to Narrative Therapy in 2006 after graduating with my social work degree in Brisbane.  But it wasn’t until a few years later in Darwin that the penny dropped on how this approach might actually sit comfortably alongside the worldviews and cultural perspectives of Aboriginal people whom I was working with.  A one week intensive at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide introducing me to Collective and Community practices from a narrative approach was the start of a journey of sharing these ideas with my Aboriginal colleagues and ‘having a go’ to see what works.

The following reflections show how my practice approach has been influenced by narrative therapy ideas.

Double Listening

The problems that affect the lives of Aboriginal people can often be presented in a way that is disabling or weighing them down heavily; for example, domestic violence that has gone on for many years or issues associated with poverty that affect people’s stress levels.  This negative story can come to dominate people’s lives so that it is the only one they come to believe about themselves and other people tell about them.
However, people have many story lines running through their lives.  Perhaps they have simply lost touch with the things that are important to them and they give meaning to?  In a process of ‘double listening’, we are continually looking for doors into the alternative story, as the problem-dominant story is one that Aboriginal people can fall back into again and again.

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others can sometimes internalise this view about themselves.  The process of externalising helps us to “separate the problem from the person”.   A lot of my counselling work has involved externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid.  Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that ‘the problem’ they are experiencing does not reside inside themselves, but is external to them, possibly as a result of someone else’s problem behaviour in the family.  Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

 

Eunice and Elaine share their 'strong story' of going to school.

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Resistance

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame for their problems or perhaps they invited it.  However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it was not possible to avoid the trauma, people still take positive steps to stand up against it, resist it or protect themselves from its effects (Yuen 2009).  However small these steps might be, they indicate people are responding because it challenges their values and who they are.  What is it they hold precious in their life that they would respond in this way?  What is it they strongly believe in, that has been threatened?  By exploring and thickening the strengths, skills, values and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing.  The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell any traumatic details.

Collective Narrative Documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

Narrative practice is interested in linking the individual experience to the collective; our individual problems are instead viewed as social issues. When listening to Aboriginal people’s experience of trauma, we are not only listening for individual accounts of how people responded to hard times and developing a rich narrative together, but looking for opportunities to link their life to some sort of collective experience.  In this way, people speak through us, not just to us (Denborough 2008). Some of the children I worked with wanted to share their stories of living with violence or bullying with children from other communities.  I became the deliverer of special messages between children who willingly offered up their stories if it meant it would help someone else. They often reflected “I am not alone in this” or “My experience is helping someone else”.
When people have an opportunity to anonymously share their stories with a broader audience, like another community, they gain a sense of contribution to the lives of another who may also be experiencing hard times.  In my work with Tiwi at Family Healing Bush Camps, community members were invited to share what skills, knowledge and abilities they used to get through difficult issues such as family and domestic violence, substance misuse in the family and having their children taken by welfare.  A written collective document was given back to the participants to share with other communities.  Such documents can be powerful methods of generating a social movement towards change, healing whole communities of people who share stories with each other.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree Of Life

Collective methodologies such as the Tree of Life and Team of Life have shown to be extremely effective at allowing children and young people who have experienced trauma or significant loss to speak about their skills and knowledge in the comfort and security of peers.  These metaphors offer Aboriginal people safe ways of exploring the difficult events of life like “the storm which hit our family” or “having to defend oneself from attack”.  Family members and Elders who act as outsider witnesses to children’s experience are valuable players in validating these stories.  The artwork generated from this group-work can also be shared as a collective document of children’s resilience, knowledge, hopes and dreams with other groups around the world.

Collective Narrative Timelines

Collective Narrative Timelines are also a well documented narrative practice for using with groups.  I used this methodology during groupwork with Aboriginal women to help them reflect on their own childhood experiences and how these memories have impacted on their own parenting.  Collective narrative timelines are great for the beginning of groups to help participants develop a connection very quickly around a shared theme, while also acknowledging the diversity of experience in the room.  You can read about my process of using Collective Narrative Timelines in a previous blog.

For more resources and ideas on narrative practice with Indigenous communities, explore our Direct Practice and Professional Development Libraries.

References:

Denborough 2008, Collective Narrative Therapy: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma.

Yuen, A. 2009, Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma.

How Did Metaphors Become a Part of My Therapeutic Framework?

One of my very first learnings all those years ago in counselling work with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory was their tendency to talk in round-a-bout ways.  At first I found this frustrating.  You could not ask a direct question and get a direct answer.  It will usually be silence or a head nod (which does not necessarily mean yes, but a polite acknowledgement)!  So I had to find ways that clients would be comfortable to share their experience safely in ways which suited their communication style and integrated their traumatic experience.  After trying the methodologies I’d learnt from narrative therapy and getting such a good response, it dawned on me that working with metaphors was common sense.  Aboriginal people have been communicating in metaphorical ways since time began, through their dreaming stories and ancestors.  This way of working just fits!  Whether it has been in individual counselling or groupwork with women and children or in training and mentoring with Aboriginal workers, concepts or ideas are much easier to communicate through metaphorical stories, verbal or visual.

My first exposure to working with metaphors was at the Dulwich Centre.  “The Tree of Life” methodology was inspired by the work of Ncazelo Ncube of REPSSI (Zimbabwe/South Africa) to respond to children affected by HIV/AIDS.  I’ve used this and its sister method “The Team of Life” with children in the Tiwi Islands with great success, training local Aboriginal women to facilitate the activity.  The tree metaphor gives children a safe place to stand to explore challenges and problems in their lives without re-traumatising them.  I also noticed how the adults supporting the children, started talking about their own lives using trees.

“Trees can teach us a lot about how to live.  Our traditional way of life is about caring for each other and growing strong families.  Now there are storms destroying our families and hurting our children.  We can see it’s not a healthy life for our people”.  – Elaine Tiparui, Bathurst Island.

Picture: Ian Morris.

Picture: Ian Morris. This image has been used to talk about the role of the whole family/community to grow up strong kids (Grandparents are the old growth trees in the background, Uncles/Aunties and parents in middle, teenagers as younger trees and babies/toddlers the little seedlings in front).

I went on to work collaboratively with the women of Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland to develop a new tool using the tree metaphor to invite women into a conversation about violence and its affect on children’s development.  “It Takes a Forest to raise a tree: Healing Our Children from the Storms in their Lives” is my first resource produced in community, with community, for community.

As my counselling work progressed, I found that narrative therapy still relied on people being able to verbally express a story.  Neuroscience tells us that the impact of trauma on the brain means that people are simply unable to talk about what happened to them, even if they wanted to!  Many of the children, I’ve worked with were still very much non-verbal and I’ve come to rely more and more on art as a method of communicating and integrating traumatic experience.  Working alongside Aboriginal Child and Family Support Workers using their own languages, we discovered ways for children to document their stories of abuse, violence and neglect using methods like drawing, clay, collage and mask making.  Not surprisingly these stories were communicated through aliens, imaginary friends, monsters, dreaming animals, body parts and other such creatures apart from themselves.   To offer other alternative ways in to children’s stories, I also went on to write ‘The Life of Tree’, a therapeutic picture book, designed to help Aboriginal children speak up about their trauma experience.  Metaphors work in the most magical way to bring healing!

…metaphorically speaking will continue to experiment with playful and effective therapeutic tools using metaphors in our direct work with clients and in the resources we produce in the future.
You can read more about how we are integrating use of metaphors with other therapeutic modalities on our page ‘How We Work’.
You can also find further resources on using metaphors in counselling and trauma work in our Professional Development Library.

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‘The Magic of Metaphors:  Engaging women at risk to prevent trauma in young children’

This was the topic of a presentation I gave at the SNAICC Conference in Canberra in September, 2017.  Thanks to some spontaneous video recording and retrieval work from another social worker sitting in the audience that day, I’ve finally been able to edit this together.

This presentation occurred as I came to the end of my contract with Relationships Australia NT, as Co-Ordinator of the Healing Our Children project.  It was the culmination of about six years work; most of which was in the development phase working on an idea raised by concerned Elders on the Tiwi Islands, plus a further two and a half years to roll out a pilot program in remote communities on the Tiwi Islands, Katherine and Palmerston.

As a Co-founder of the project, I am proud of this work and what we have been able to create.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I spent learning together with the women of the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland about ways we can respond to domestic and family violence to protect children and prevent trauma.

This was a fantastic project because it was developed in community with community using the knowledge, wisdom and stories of Aboriginal people’s lived experience.  It did not come from outside or abroad.  Programs like this are not cheap to develop and involve a lot of sweat and tears, time and patience.  We did it all on a shoestring!

I decided not to continue on in the role as Co-Ordinator because as much as I had invested in this project and believed wholeheartedly in what we set out to achieve, it was underfunded.  I was employed for two days per week to support and mentor a team of local people in several communities.  Unfortunately, the extension of funding beyond 2018 then reduced, rather than capitalised on the investment and success we had already made during this trial.  This was disappointing, as the women and communities had invested so much of their energy and time voluntarily, on an issue they were passionate about addressing.  It means that the local people employed in the project (which is one of the biggest aims of the funding) receive only casual wages and service delivery is sporadic at best.

We can do better than this.

My point is that I want to see projects like this properly funded, especially ones that are developed by communities for their own people.  So they are sustainable and have every chance of enacting real change and closing the gap!

Everything that I brought to this project through my social work practice framework is represented in some form in this presentation.  This includes strong values and a commitment to social justice, self determination and empowerment for Aboriginal people.  This video may appeal to social workers interested in anti-oppressive practice, narrative community work or using metaphors in therapeutic work.

This presentation covers:

  • Background to the ‘Healing Our Children’ project
  • The culturally safe project model
  • Shared values that underpinned the project
  • Metaphors and how we came to use them in our training, therapeutic groupwork, resource development and evaluation
  • The healing potential and therapeutic benefit of using metaphors in trauma work
  • How the resource kit “It Takes a Forest to Raise a Tree” was developed
  • How metaphors assisted us in safe dialogue with women who had children living at home with violence
Please note:  Due to our video camera running out of batteries half way through, we have edited together the two parts of this presentation.

 

 

My hope is that ‘Healing Our Children’ moves beyond surviving, to thriving!
Support, follow and learn more here.

‘Healing Our Children’ project at Relationships Australia NT

‘Healing Our Children’ Facebook page

Riding out the Waves of Emotion with and in Nature

What would it be like if we responded to perceived ‘negative’ feelings in the same way we responded to ‘perceived’ positive feelings?  You know the feelings I’m talking about; the ones that make our body feel uncomfortable.  Anger, sadness, grief, guilt, pain, hurt, shame, jealousy and the like.   Growing up we learn to push these feelings away, ignore them, get over them, put a lid on them or deny them.  In fact, society expects us to.  And if we can’t, then we are told to go to a counsellor to learn how to, because there must be something wrong with us.

What if instead we were to normalise these feelings, rather than to see them as abnormal or bad?  After all, it’s only the behaviour that accompanies these feelings that may cause a problem, not the feeling itself.   Somewhere along the line society has labelled emotions ‘negative’ and ‘positive’.  The so named ‘negative’ ones we want to avoid.  The ‘positive’ ones we crave more of.  We should to be happy all the time, right?

What if we were instead to ride through the wave of perceived ‘negative’ emotion, like a piece of driftwood that rides the ocean currents, knowing eventually the rough and tumble will be over and it will wash up on the shore, ready to dry out and fulfil its potential in the sun?

Nature has much to teach us about living with our emotions, just as nature is a stimulus for experiencing emotion.  Nature shares with us her awesome presence and we experience feelings of awe and wonder staring at a sky filled with millions of stars.  We dwell in delight and joy at the sound of birdsong or a fleeting visit from a timid animal in the forest.  We are wrapped up in happiness and excitement as we discover unexplored, beautiful places that take our breath away.   Our bodies respond to these sensory experiences in pleasurable ways.  We are totally present in the here and now, relishing in the feeling of the moment.

The skill of being mindful in nature can be applied to all our emotions, not just the ones that give us sensations of comfort.  Nature provides some clues about this.  A fire sweeping through the bush is horrifying and scary.  Trees do not enjoy having their leaves stripped bare or bark scarred.  But they stand there, remaining steadfast.  They ride it out.  They slow down their breathing and conserve their energy.  Trees have learnt how to protect themselves from past experience by growing thick bark.  Eventually, the smoke clears, the rains come, and seeds burst forth in regrowth.

What if we were to sit with our emotion in the moment and bring the same kind of awareness to our experience, as we do with ‘positive’ emotions?  To sit and dwell in the pit of crappiness, to bring awareness to the tightness in our stomach, to be accepting of our vulnerability, to notice the change in sensations as the feeling eventually passes.

What if we were to treat our emotions like a friend to get to know rather than an enemy to run away from.  With curiosity, get to know its habits, its likes, its dislikes.  If you can recognise the signs of its arrival, you can be prepared, and find a place to sit and ride it out (preferably in nature which has immediate calming and relaxation effects).

Indigenous peoples do not push their grief away or hide it or try to move through it quickly.  They spend many days or weeks, sometimes months expressing their sorrow after the passing of loved ones.  They feel it shifting through their bodies as they dance and sing to the natural rhythms of the earth.

Experiencing and sitting with the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be human.

For those that have experienced trauma, the experience of sitting with emotions can be much more difficult.  Our response, driven by the brain’s need to protect us, might shut our body down completely so we don’t have to feel at all, or help us get ready to fight or run away from a perceived threat.  This is where nature’s healing powers can really do its work.  When uncomfortable or painful feelings come to the fore, nature provides the distraction needed to calm our over-reactive limbic system.  Taking some time to sit in green space with the sun on your face, the breeze drifting over your skin or the grass beneath your feet, is the first step to retraining your brain through a mindfulness practice.  Building up the muscles in your brain to bring awareness to your felt sense, slowly makes space for the more uncomfortable feelings to be explored in small steps over time.  Sometimes a support person or counsellor is needed to guide this process.

Every feeling we have is normal.  They are part of this journey called life.  They come and go.  Even those that are a result of traumatic experience can be healed, through a practice of mindfulness in nature.

Be gentle on yourself.  Sit with your emotions.  All of them.  Breathe through them.  Notice their passing.

Nature is brave enough to do it.  Humans are nature, so we can too.

‘Striving for Fairness and Equity in a Colonised World’ with Sammi Lillie

It is a fitting tribute for NAIDOC week, that I should be interviewing Sammi Lillie on ‘Talk The Walk’ this week.  In this conversation, Sammi honours the many Aboriginal women that have supported and vouched for her on her journey into social work with First Nations peoples.  Having just graduated from her Masters of Social Work, Sammi reflects on her placement experience of co-ordinating the Child Removal campaign at ANTAR Qld (Australians for Native Title and Reconcilitation).  Driven by personal family interests as well as deeply held values and a commitment to self determination, Sami shares the ingredients that have made practising Indigenous policy and advocacy work successful as a non-Indigenous woman.   Social work students considering their future placements will find this episode invaluable and current non-indigenous practitioners will discover pearls of wisdom for standing alongside our Indigenous brothers and sisters for recognition and justice.

In episode 23 of Talk the Walk we explore:

  • Why social work students should consider a placement experience in policy and advocacy work
  • The current state of affairs in relation to the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families
  • The state of child protection legislation in Queensland after adopting the principle of self determination in 2017
  • The need for a national inquiry into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care
  • How you can support the Family Matters initiative to make a difference
  • Sammi’s greatest learnings working on Indigenous advocacy campaigns and policy development
  • The social work theories that influenced Sammi’s developing practice framework
  • Sammi’s concept of a ‘pro-Indigenous theory’ arising out of her interest in the work of Bob Pease on pro-feminism
  • Sammi’s personal connection to the Stolen Generations and the other motivating factors that make her so passionate about addressing discrimination
  • How Sammi has avoided major struggles in the work by acting with integrity, honesty and ‘cultural courage’
  • Knowledge that social workers should have but are just not getting
  • Unpacking the values underpinning Sammi’s work and life
  • The mentors and rolemodels that continue to inspire Sammi in her work
  • Reflections on proud moments, avoiding mistakes easily made, and Sammi’s plans for the future
  • Final advice for other social work students considering their placements

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

ANTaR Queensland website and Sign Up here for their Newsletter

ANTaR National website and Sign Up here for their Newsletter

Social Work Focus, Autumn Edition, featuring Sammi’s article ‘Support for Self Determination imperative to address the over-representation of Indigenous Children in the Child Protection system’.  You will need to be a member of the AASW to access this resource.

Like Sammi’s Facebook Page ‘Ally Through Advocacy’

Sammi’s Reading List
Clare Tilbery, ‘The over-representation of indigenous children in the Australian child welfare system’, International Journal of Social Welfare.
Bob Pease,  ‘Men as Allies in Preventing Violence against Women: Principles and Practices for Promoting Accountability’.
Bindi Bennett, Sue Green, Stephanie Gilbert, Dawn Bessarab (eds), Our voices : Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social work.
Bindi Bennett, Joanna Zubrzycki, J & Violent Bacon, ‘What Do We Know? The Experiences of Social Workers Working Alongside Aboriginal People’.
Christine Fejo-King & Linda Briskman,Reversing colonial practices with Indigenous peoples’
Christine Fejo-KingLet’s Talk Kinship.
English, Peter.  ‘Land rights and birthrights, (the great Australian hoax) : an examination of the rights of ownership of former Aboriginal land in Australia’.
Aileen Moreton- Robinson, Whitening Race, Aboriginal Studies Press, Australia.
Robyn Lynn, Rosamund Thorpe, Debra Miles, Christine Cutts, Anne Butcher, Linda Ford   Murri Way! Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders reconstruct social welfare practice.
Tom Calma & Emily Priday, Putting Indigenous Human Rights into Social Work Practice’Australian Social Work.
Elizabeth Fernandez, ‘Child Protection and Vulnerable Families: Trends and Issues in the Australian Context’Social Sciences.

Contact Sammi at sammililli(at)gmail(dot)com

Your opinion matters: Help me to help you

If you have been following my blog for a while, you would have noticed that this year I graduated as a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.   In amongst this, I managed to move from the Northern Territory to New South Wales.  And now I’m embarking on setting up my own private practice, bringing together my social work experience in counselling, groupwork and community development projects, with knowledge and skills in narrative, art and ecotherapies.

You may be familiar with my passion for the environment and special interest in how nature can work with us in promoting health and wellbeing for people and the planet.   While, I am concerned about the rapidly increasing rates of anxiety and depression across the world, I am hopeful and excited about the growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of nature connection to our physical, mental, spiritual and social health.  Indigenous cultures (including the Tiwi mob) have been talking about this for a long time.  Now the Western world with its scientific evidence has finally caught on – when we are out in nature we feel better!

So anyway.  Whether you have been following my journey of discovery, learning and practice for a while or have recently subscribed, your opinion matters.  You can help shape my journey from this point on.

As part of my business plan, I am seeking feedback on the best ways to bring my therapeutic services to the community where I work.  This could take the form of individual consultations (face to face or on-line), group experiences and Corporate Wellbeing sessions.

My on-line Health and Wellbeing survey takes approximately 5-7 minutes to complete.  You can remain anonymous if you so choose, but you must live in Australia to participate.  I will be collating responses until Friday June 30.
Oh, and watch out for my new look website launching soon.  Exciting times ahead!
See you in nature.
Lucy

Stressed at Work? Take it Outside.

Did you know that more than half of the Australian workforce is stressed and almost just as many of us will go on to experience mental illness?   Stress related claims cost Australian business over $200 million annually!

The impact of stress usually results in deteriorating work performance, taking more time off and running down your immune system.   Illness has a direct effect on both the quality and quantity of your work.   You will work more slowly than usual, make more mistakes or need to repeat tasks.  This lower labour productivity translates to increased costs for employers.

It’s a pretty depressing picture, isn’t it?   What’s going on?  Why are we such a stressed out bunch?   Well, there’s probably a lot of reasons!   And something needs to change.  We spend a lot of our lives at work, we deserve to be happy and for work to be a fun and relaxed place to be, where we feel respected by our (not stressed out) colleagues and valued by our (not stressed out) boss.

One view is that people are spending much less time in nature and that we are suffering from ‘nature deficit disorder’ which affects us mentally, physically and spiritually.  I’ve been doing a lot of research recently around the effects of nature on health and wellbeing and how this carries over into our work life.   People who spend time in nature are not only happier and healthier but also smarter and more successful inside the office.  Happy people are 31% more productive, less absent with 23% fewer fatigue symptoms and up to 10% more engaged in their work.  The benefits flow on to business with a happy workforce bringing in 20% higher profits.   It’s a win, win for everybody.

One study showed that staff on long-term sick leave from stress related illness show improvements in functioning and mood after being in a forest.   Even just looking at trees out a window has a positive effect on mood;  workers experience less frustration, more patience, less health complaints and higher job satisfaction.


Employers that invest in staff health and wellbeing can expect increased work performance and productivity, cost savings from higher retention and lower absenteeism, and a happier organisational culture.

So what can you do to bring these benefits of nature into your office space?  Here’s a few ideas.

  • Take your lunch break outside. Go for a walk to a nearby park and lie under the trees or ask your boss for an outdoor sit space to eat.  Get your daily boost of Vitamin D and invite in the sights, sounds and textures in your environment to relax and restore your mind, body and soul.
  • Bring a pot plant to put on your desk. They provide numerous benefits such as cleaning the air, helping to relieve stress, contributing to your creativity and giving your eyes a break from the computer.
  • Add nature to your commute. If you walk or cycle, change your route to include a park.  If you catch public transport, be intentional about noticing nature on your route.  Get on later, or off earlier so you can include outdoor time as part of your journey.
  • Take your next meeting outside or try a walking meeting in a natural space.  Being in nature brings with it better decision making, more creativity and alertness.
  • Turn your desk around so you are facing the window and can give your eyes a rest from the computer now and then.
  • Open the blinds to allow the natural sunlight to flood the room. Or better still open your window to let in the natural (non-airconditioned) air and the sounds of the birds or leaves rustling in the wind.
  • Block out the office noise and listen to nature sounds like running water, bird song and gentle rain on your headphones.
  • Hang up a painting, artwork or photography showcasing nature’s wonders or install a nature computer screen-saver.  Even looking at nature has health benefits too!
  • Have a nature play table in your office with shells, stones, bark, feathers or other things you find, alongside your oil burner decanting a natural pine scent.  Colleagues that visit might linger a while longer!
  • Sweet talk the boss into investing in biophilia as a core design principle in the office or outdoor spaces. For inspiration check out what Google and Ferrari have done.

This Saturday at #StartUpsCoffsCoast I will be launching a new service to promote a nature-based approach to health and wellbeing in the workplace.   This includes Half-Day Corporate Wellbeing Sessions for team-building, planning days and Corporate events; Guided Lunchtime Daily Doses for Staff, and access to Consultation Services to develop and implement Green Wellbeing policies, drawing on the combination of professional expertise at Nature and Wellbeing Australia.   My new look website with more details is on its way very soon.

I hope to see you in nature.  And don’t forget to take the boss with you!

A Grief Encounter with Nature

As much as it hurts to write this because my sadness is raw and alive and being lived in this very moment, I want everyone to know that when you are in the midst of grief, nature has your back.

Back in March my mother had a fall and broke her hip.  Upon admission to hospital it was discovered she had sepsis, life threatening blood poisoning.  This kills a lot of people!  I hopped on a plane and flew ‘home’ to see her; it was touch and go for a while.  Over the next two weeks, the surgery was on, then off, then on again, then mum wasn’t well enough to operate on.  At one stage she was going to have to learn to live with a broken hip, because her heart might not survive an operation.

Meanwhile a few days after mum’s accident, my dad fell and was discovered passed out many hours later in the hot sun.  He suffered first degree burns to his legs and face from lying on a metal ramp.  Severely dehydrated, he was also lucky to be alive.

Was this really happening?  Two parents in hospital.  It was as if time had slowed down so much that I had trouble breathing.  I needed space.  I needed air.  I needed time to process this.

I am grateful I had the opportunity to just walk and ride and run outside on my brothers farm (I don’t usually run because my knees aren’t up to it, but I did it anyway because I knew it wouldn’t hurt any more than my heart).  I climbed the old gum tree I played in as a child, reminiscing about fun imaginary times and appreciating opportunities laid out for my future there.  As I gazed towards the setting sun over long, dry grass blowing in the wind, my tears fell on the brown, cracked earth, momentarily breaking the drought.  I lay on the grass, staring at aging eucalypts in the paddock, which had lost hope and turned an unsightly brown.  They were doing it tough too.

My favourite childhood memories are growing in this gum tree.

Eventually another surgery opportunity presented itself to my mum in Melbourne.  And dad agreed to skin grafts.  Can you believe they both travelled to the big city on the same day?  Weird.  Coincidence.

Mum didn’t quite make the painful three hour journey in the back of the ambulance, having to stop momentarily at another hospital to administer more pain medication and stabilise her.  After numerous set backs including infections and low blood pressure, she finally had her operation two weeks after the fall.  I had made peace with the fact that she might not survive it.  It was a nervous moment.  I was beside dad’s bed when his blood pressure dropped so low that his heart monitor alarm went off.   My own heart skipped a beat; life on a knife edge.

A lot of time was spent bedside.  Or travelling to hospital.  Or negotiating the public transport between two hospitals in a city that doesn’t know how to go slow.  I sought nature again, and space, and air.  All I saw were tall buildings of concrete crowding out the warm sun and other depressed-looking city folk stuck on the mouse’s wheel.  The only trees I saw were in a beautiful park, from nine stories up out a hospital window.  I was desperate to get there to feel the earth under my feet, to run amongst the autumn leaves, to breathe freely, but I never did.  The weather had turned so bitterly cold, dreary and wetter than my tears.

The trees I desperately wished to visit, out of mum’s hospital window.

I was angry too.  Hospitals were not conducive to healing or recovery.  People got sicker here not better (it happened to my mum).   I couldn’t stop thinking about the research that shows patients who have access to nature outside their window recover more quickly from surgery and illness.  Some of the beds I’ve seen, don’t even have natural light!

Eventually I had to fly home.  I contracted a chest cold and I didn’t want to infect anybody.

Seven weeks later and my parents are still in hospital.  There have been infections and unexplainable turns.  Multiple tests, scans, xrays.  MRI’s and ECG’s.  Staphylococcus contraction from surgery.  Wounds that won’t stop leaking.  Patience running thin.  Surgery to re-do unsuccessful grafts.  Going off food.   Back on food.  Ups.  Downs.

Wide open space allow me to run and breathe and hide and chase shadows with my son.

But the tipping point came this week, when I learned that the surgeons had also removed a lump from my dad’s ear which turned out to be Melanoma, an aggressive form of cancer.

There is nothing worse than watching those you love in unbearable pain.  Now there would be more to come.  I never dreamed that this would be dad’s way of exiting the world.  And mum is still not out of the woods yet (pardon the pun).

Upon hearing this latest news, I took off on my regular walk up the country road where I live.  I didn’t get far before my eyes became too clouded to see where I was going.  I plonked myself down on the roadside in the bushes, overlooking the valley.  I listened to the breeze as it bent young eucalypts.  I watched the ants moving about their daily business.  I gazed at fluffy white clouds moving across the brilliant blue sky.  And then I heard something, a gentle pounding, of little feet.  I didn’t move.  Then right on cue I noticed a wallaby meandering towards my direction.  It stopped behind a tree.  Then slowly it moved towards the fence five metres in front of me, crouching down to move through the wire, and pop up on the other side.  I told myself if I sat still, perhaps it would hop right on past me, allowing me to appreciate this close up encounter.   The wallaby started up the slight embankment towards me.  Before I had struck eye contact, he had caught a glimpse of me and with tremendous leg strength, had dramatically propelled himself into reverse, the ground reverberating, bouncing off the rise and back up the fence line.  I didn’t even have time to react.  Even my breath had stopped dead still.

I watched him as he sat at a safe distance plucking up the courage to look back at the strange phenomenon he had just encountered.  It must have been a shocking discovery to find me sitting there.  I couldn’t help but feel sad that he wasn’t brave enough to continue on past me, as if I was invisible.  Or just a part of nature too.  Part of his web of life.

Yes, I know how you feel young wallaby.  You’re shocked.  You’re rattled.  The natural rhythm of life has been upset momentarily.

But I notice something else.  You bounced back.  Sure, it was in another unexpected direction.   But you also had the courage to look back and ponder what it was that knocked you off your feet.  To take stock before you carry on.   To appreciate this moment of being alive in nature.

You and I have a lot in common.

POSTNOTE:   My dear mum passed away on June 9, 2018.  Forever remembered.

“You Don’t Have to Know Everything“ with Diana Jans

It is a short but oh so sweet conversation, this week on ‘Talk the Walk’.  As is so often the case, social workers are busy people and taking a half hour out of the daily schedule is precious time.  My guest is Diana Jans, an Aboriginal maternal health social worker with Apunipima Cape York Health Council.   After several years working as a teacher with vulnerable children, it was obvious to Diana she needed more skills to be able to meet their needs.  Join me, as we take a quick trip down memory lane with Diana and discover what it takes to be a remote social worker.

In episode 23 of Talk the Walk, we explore:

  • What drew Diane to a career in Social Work after years of teaching in the Cape York region
  • A typical day in the life of a maternal health social worker and the challenges facing pregnant Aboriginal women in remote Australia
  • What it means to Diane to be living and working on the country where her great, great grandparents were born
  • Why her mum would say Diane was destined to be a social worker because of the value, beliefs and principles installed in her early life, as survivors of the Stolen Generation
  • The soon to be released journal article called “Coming To Town”, an initiative of service providers in Cairns supporting pregnant mums travelling for medical appointments
  • Key findings from their research and lessons for social workers and other allied health workers in providing a culturally supportive service
  • Diane’s advice for social workers just starting out in the field and the kind of attributes needed for remote work

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to follow up after the episode

‘Coming to Town’ will be available soon via the Apunipima Cape York Health Council website 

Contact Diana Jans on 07 4037 7100

 

‘The Earth is our Master Teacher’ with Bernard Kelly-Edwards

This week on ‘Talk the Walk’ I sit down with Bernard Kelly-Edwards in the middle of his tiny art shop in the thriving alternative community of Bellingen.   Bernard is surrounded by paintings, expressions of who he is, a local Gumbayngirr man, and symbols of the deep spiritual connection to country that he shares with others.

Bernard began his own journey of self-discovery attending a cultural program called Red Dust Healing and now reaches out to other individuals and groups to support Closing the Gap in cultural understanding.   It is his passion for promoting mental health amongst Indigenous young people using the healing capacity of Miimga (Mother Earth) that is the focus of our conversation today.

His business, BKE Consultancy is a unique mix of multi-media platforms of art, photography, short film, poetry and storytelling.  Bernard brings all these talents, along with skills of deep listening and knowledge of Aboriginal Lore, recognising sight and the feeling of cultural sites, passed down to him.

A few times in this conversation, Bernard speaks of the spirit being, the one with no mouth.  He is describing the image in the painting, he is seen holding here.

This is what we explore in Episode 22 of ‘Talk the Walk’:

  • Bernard’s approach to ‘counselling’ using the tools he has found most effective from his own experience and gifts from Mother Earth
  • What deep listening really looks and feels like, for our own and others’ health and wellbeing
  • Easy practices you can try at home to develop your spiritual connection with Mother Earth and your self
  • The elements of life such as water, animals and wind that make communication and connection possible
  • Lessons for how we are living our lives, from the Earth’s perspective
  • Awareness – Balance – and Integration; Bernard’s 3 step strategy for healing of the planet beginning at home
  • How Bernard uses the concept of perceptual positions to assist individuals to take responsibility in their own healing process
  • Making deadly choices and being in the present moment, using the model of awareness, balance and integration
  • How Bernard works with the triggering emotions of individual’s past traumatic experiences to change belief systems and move people forward
  • Bernard’s sparkling moment – a good news story of healing
  • Bernard’s painting and it’s interpretation of his own spiritual form

Image: Bernard K Edwards

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
Listen to Stitcher
You can also subscribe to podcast and blog updates via email from the Menu on the Home Page.

Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

We apologise for some of the human-made background noise at the beginning of this interview.   That’s what happens when you are talking with real people on the job in the heart of their community.   Sometimes you just have to go with it.   Enjoy!

Things to follow up after the episode:

Connect with Bernard K Edwards on Facebook

Connect with BKE Consultancy on Facebook

Contact Bernard by email at bkeconsultancy79(at)hotmail(dot)com