Carlene says the help she received from Kenzie’s Gift for her daughter Olivia was ‘life changing.’ “Without the support from Lorna (Wood) I would have struggled way more, trying to deal with my own emotions and Olivia’s at the same time.”
Carlene’s daughter Olivia was three-and-a-half in August 2020 when the family suffered an unimaginable loss: the death of Carlene’s sister-in-law, Olivia’s beloved auntie Renaye, to suicide at the age of 42.
Renaye had returned home to New Zealand at the end of 2019 after a five-year stay in Dubai. Olivia and her auntie developed a strong and special bond right away.
“My husband and I had just had our son,” says Carlene, “and Olivia enjoyed having one to one time with her auntie. They would sing the song from Frozen at the top of their lungs in the living room. They had a very special relationship. Then, all of a sudden, Renaye was gone.”
Olivia is a bright, sassy, outgoing and independent child yet also kind, sensitive and caring. The staff at her day care had often asked Carlene how she had taught her daughter to develop such empathy for others.
“That’s just how she is,” was the reply, “she doesn’t like seeing people upset.” Olivia would always be the first to respond with a pat on the back or a hug if one of her day care friends was crying.
In the days after her auntie’s death, Olivia was distressed and inconsolable, unable to control her emotions, thrown into a panic every time someone left, afraid they would ‘go to the stars’ too and she would be left alone. “She wouldn’t go to bed at night, worried that if I went out after she went to bed, I wouldn’t come home again.”
At such a young age, Olivia could not fully comprehend what had happened, only that auntie wasn’t there and Mum and Dad were very sad. Carlene and her husband found themselves distanced from their daughter, not only by their own grief but also by having to support family and organise the funeral for Renaye. “We weren’t around as much as we should’ve been. My way of coping with grief was to avoid the situation, throw myself into funeral planning mode. It became second nature for a while. There was so much stress within the family too. My mother-in-law was devastated, losing a child in that way, and her grief was there for Olivia to see when we visited her. It was a struggle. We were trying to protect Olivia from her nana’s grief, and nana from Olivia’s.”
Carlene and her husband discussed at length whether Olivia should attend the funeral. “We decided we all needed to be together as a family. My sisters were a huge help. They cared for the children at the funeral so I could give full support to my husband that day. We were both pallbearers and Olivia just lost the plot as we carried Renaye out. She could see her mum and dad crying and she wanted to come to us but that wasn’t possible. In the video you can hear her screaming in the background.”
Olivia’s reaction at the funeral was a profound indication she was not coping well with the situation. “My grandmother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the time. I was processing that and then I had to work out how to tell Olivia that she would lose another person in a few months. Explaining death to a child is a little easier if that person is old. My sister-in-law was young so I felt I couldn’t tell Olivia people died when they were old because Renaye wasn’t.”
Olivia was an observant child but too young to fully process her grief and understand the concept of death. Auckland went into a Level Three COVID-19 lockdown the day after the funeral and this abrupt change added to Olivia’s distress. Used to a daily routine, Olivia couldn’t attend her day care and missed her friends. Carlene and her husband did their best to help her. “My older sister is a paediatric physiotherapist. She knew Olivia needed the specialised support that we could not give her. She’d heard of Kenzie’s Gift and suggested we get in touch with them.”
Kenzie’s Gift therapist Lorna Wood conducted online video sessions with Carlene, observing Olivia’s behaviour as she played in the background. “Lorna and I had about five video sessions over a few weeks. Lorna talked to me while Olivia played. We both felt it would be too confusing and confronting for Olivia to engage her in sessions at that stage. I emailed questions to Lorna and she responded with tips and things to try.”
Lorna asked what Olivia was into and books were at the top of the list. “She has always loved books so Lorna suggested some titles. I bought two or three and they’ve been very helpful.”
Another tip was keeping Olivia to as normal a routine as possible during the lockdown period. “It was hard. Olivia’s a real ‘routines’ child. Being isolated at home did not help her process her emotions and Lorna suggested giving Olivia one to one time with me or her dad. That way one of us could keep an eye on her brother while she had the undivided attention of the other. Lorna also recommended taking Olivia away from a situation when she got upset, sitting quietly with her, asking her to explain what was wrong or just letting her have a cry.”
Olivia returned to day care after lockdown and Carlene acknowledges how supportive the staff were. “Olivia was very ‘clingy’. I explained what had happened with my sister-in-law and they were very understanding of Olivia and the support she needed. The children were grouped there by age. Olivia had moved up to a classroom for older children, leaving behind one of her younger friends. She would not play with anybody else but him so the teachers arranged for them to be together. Olivia needed comfort from a few select people. I would pick her up each day and the staff would tell me how she’d been, whether she’d had a ‘tearful day’ or was clingier than usual and not quite herself. Knowing this, I could sit down with her at home later, have a cuddle, ask about her day and give her an opportunity to talk to me about it so I could help her.”
Olivia was doing better so an ‘in person’ visit with Lorna wasn’t needed. “Lorna’s door is always open though, should Olivia need to come in and do some deeper work.” Olivia will start school in February 2022.
Olivia still asks if her auntie will ‘come down from the stars’ and return to them. “She still gets upset. We tell her that it’s OK to be sad and miss her but ‘always remember all of the fun times you had with your auntie Renaye too’.”
Olivia and Carlene found a special poem that they read together when missing auntie Renaye gets too hard. “I made up a memory book for her with pictures of family and we placed the poem next to Renaye’s so Olivia knows that is the special one for her auntie. It had been about two months since we’d read the poem together and the other day Olivia brought it to me and asked if we could read it. I read it to her about four times before she was happy to walk away again.”
Carlene says the help she received from Kenzie’s Gift was ‘life changing.’ “Without the support from Lorna I would have struggled way more, trying to deal with my own emotions and Olivia’s at the same time. Being able to talk to someone who had the knowledge and understanding of how a child reacts to grief put my mind at ease because I didn’t know if Olivia was behaving the way a child of her age would in a situation like that. Lorna assured me that Olivia’s behaviour was normal. All I wanted to do was help her and Kenzie’s Gift provided me with ways to do that.”
Olivia is returning to her ‘normal self’, outgoing and independent, kind and caring. “But she can be a challenge and there are days when she has pushed every one of my buttons, her brother has woken up early and all I want to do is sit down and burst into tears and yet Olivia’s the first one to come over, give me a cuddle and say, ‘I’m sorry mummy’.”
Renaye loved Christmas and caramel-scented candles in particular. When the family went to have their Christmas portraits taken last year, the scent of these candles filled the studio so Carlene bought one for her family and another for her mother-in-law.
“We received Renaye’s belongings from Dubai and the only boxes we unpacked were those containing her Christmas items. This past Christmas (2020) we decorated our tree with her ornaments. Her candle sat beside the tree and Olivia and I lit it every night.”
Carlene sees this Christmas ritual as just one way they can keep Renaye’s memory alive for Olivia. Remembering all of the fun times they shared is another, and Olivia goes to sleep every night with Elsa, the treasured Frozen doll given to her by her auntie, tucked in beside her. “We try to keep the memories special, things Olivia can take into the future with her.”
Carlene hopes Olivia never has to endure the loss of a loved one to suicide in her adult life. “Society is changing and while suicide is talked about more openly there is still such a stigma surrounding it. I needed support and tried to find a group for those affected by a suicide and couldn’t find anything. I can only hope that this loss does not affect Olivia in the longer term. I have since lost a cousin to suicide. Olivia didn’t know him but it’s been hard for me going through this again.
“We know there will be more losses for Olivia in the near future. Grandparents on both my side and my husband’s may leave us in the next year or two and Olivia will go through the grief of loss again but Kenzie’s Gift has provided me with the tools and skills to help my daughter. I know the door is always open should Olivia need their specialist support again.”