Parents struggle for words, but school roll tells the tale

The boys charge down the slide and manfully shovel sand with spades as long as they are. The big girls run around on top of the brightly coloured equipment and the little ones draw butterflies.
Mothers and teachers stand chatting around the edge of mulch. A boy catches sight of his teacher and races over to hug her, shouting with delight, ”You’re here!” She hugs him back, fiercely. Then she looks into his eyes and says, ”You were really worried about me. I heard that you were all right and I cheered yes! Yes!” Reassured, he runs back to play. But when the teacher straightens, her eyes go blank. She tells a second teacher that children have been running up to her saying that this child or that child ”is gone”. They tell her it means there will be fewer names on the roll now. She has lost three children from her class to the deadly fires.
She names them. Her friend gasps at the third name in disbelief; she hadn’t heard that one. The first teacher says simply, ”She’s gone. The whole family has gone.” Their brave front crumbles and they fall into each other’s arms, weeping.
Welcome to morning playtime at Kinglake Primary.
Many of the parents and teachers here are refugees from Middle Kinglake Primary School, which has been razed. Each of the three local schools is believed to have suffered loss of life. The rising death toll now includes at least four families in which both parents and all children died. If there is one question exercising the minds of most parents of young children in the devastated town, it is, ”What do we tell the children?” Parents who are themselves distraught over the loss of family, friends or homes must work out how to tell their children necessary truths without unnecessarily traumatising them. For many at this special playtime an informal gathering for two hours a day in a bid for something approaching normality the answer has been to tell them little or nothing yet of the deaths of other children. But the evidence of the fire’s destruction is all about them and that cannot be hidden. Karen Collyer lives in a part of town virtually untouched by the blaze. She prepared her two boys for what they would see when they left the neighbourhood the still-smouldering ruins and the bare trees standing like grim dark sentinels. She says she doesn’t know what her older son made of that first trip. ”He was just really quiet in the back of the car. I don’t know if they fully understand what has gone on.” She is still trying to get her head around how best to tell him the worst news: ”One of the little girls that perished was playing in our pool the week before. I don’t think he’s ready for that just yet.” Another mother in tears at the edge of the playground was asking the same question: how was she to tell her little girl that she will never see her friend again?
Parents struggling to find the words are struggling against the clock. Some children have heard of friends’ deaths for the first time on the TV news reports. Kinglake principal Ros Fleming said, ”Things are not confirmed but the names are on the news.” So children who were sent off the mountain while their parents stayed are being shielded from TV news until their families are reunited. At a community meeting yesterday, resident Anne Leadbeater begged parents to ask children not to text sad news to their friends. ”Kids are getting text messages about their friends when their parents are not with them. Talk with them about how this information needs to be shared.” Counsellor Trish Quibell and a colleague from Berry Street family service were talking to parents at the playground. She said, ”One of the best things the community has done is reopen part of the school. It’s given normality to the kids and given comfort to the parents to see the kids playing.” She understood their bewilderment. ”Parents are really worried about telling their children about this because they never thought they would have to. We tell them there is no perfect way to tell a child about a death. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but we tell them that they know their own children better than anyone.” Daniel Forde knows what she means. Responding to a remark that his two boys are playing happily, he says laconically, ”They haven’t seen the house yet.” His home was destroyed. He brought the boys here because where he is staying with his mother at Glendbourne, everything is blackened. He wanted them to see some green.
First published in The Canberra Times.