Embers of pain stir in young hearts

BLACK SATURDAY – ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ —Graham Greene

MATTHEW is an outdoors boy. He likes fishing, his scooter, his motorbike. Aged 10, he swims and plays basketball and has a dry sense of humour. On Black Saturday, he was eight. That afternoon, he and his mother left their house to take refuge with family. While others fought the firestorm roaring outside, Matthew was told to shelter inside. “What do you want me to do, Mum?” he demanded.
“Once he got past his initial terror, he was right into it,” says his mother, Tania*. “He was still frightened but he kept himself busy.” He put towels under doors and fetched wet face-washers for other distressed children as they all choked on the smoke.
When the fire passed, the house they had been protecting was safe, as were they. But a bewildered Matthew still found himself encircled by loss. His home and everything in it had been burned to the ground. His grandparents had lost their home, which had been the much-loved hub of the family for decades. His school was gone. His neighbours and two schoolfriends had been killed. The landscape of his life — the bushland around Kinglake — was a blackened ruin.
The door to the future had opened.
For Matthew, it was a future strewn with panic attacks. With choking fits that made it hard for him to eat. With nightmares about fire, in the early days, which were followed by dreams of being chased, or of being trapped, or of losing his mother. Even during the day he was often tense. He rarely laughed. He shrank away when anyone mentioned Black Saturday. Young as he was, he understood enough to know he was struggling. He told his mother: “I think I’m going crazy.”
That’s a scary thing for any parent to hear. It’s even scarier for parents who are struggling themselves.
Two years after the Black Saturday fires — the anniversary is on Monday — the physical world is beginning to heal. Trees are leafy and paddocks are lush and neat new houses have sprung up; not enough for everyone to be back under their own roofs, but enough to be a heartening sign of progress.
Emotional wounds can take longer. In bushfire areas, there are still young children wetting the bed, and having nightmares and insomnia. Some have even talked of killing themselves, at an age when kindergarten is only just behind them and the very concept should be foreign. Older children have been caught nicking antidepressants from their mother’s supply in the hope that a single “happy pill” will stop them feeling so sad.
There are children who become hysterical at the sight of a red sunset because it reminds them of flames in the sky. When mist swirled across a wintry road one morning, students on a school bus screamed because they feared it was smoke.
Bushfire-affected teenagers are showing strain too. Lesley Bebbington is a local mother who began a teen youth group in Kinglake after realising that many were coming home from school and locking themselves alone in their rooms night after night.
She says: “We are really concerned at the moment because there are a lot of kids who have just now started to experience their trauma. There are high levels of truancy and more kids accessing welfare officers now than at any time since the fire. That gels with the trauma model, which says that for some people, years two to four are the worst.
“We also noticed last year there was an increase in the use of alcohol and drugs, promiscuity — definitely an increase in that risky behaviour. Kids are talking about suicide, and ‘What’s the point?’ — both face-to-face and online with each other. They just feel there’s not any future so you may as well go the full max and not think about the consequences.”
At the heart of all these problems lies a force with which modern psychology is starting to come to grips: disaster trauma in children.
Children touched by the fires had their first encounter with mortality long before they were ready to make sense of it. Perhaps they nearly died themselves; perhaps friends or family actually did. To that mourning, and fear of sudden death, add the loss of a home and a whole order of life, as well as parents who are themselves distraught and distracted by having to rebuild, and you have a potent mix of pathogens. Survivors of the recent floods and the Queensland cyclone will face similar problems. The good news is that much is now known about how to help children heal.
Dr Paul Valent is a Holocaust survivor and a retired psychiatrist who specialised in trauma. He says it works this way: “Something major has happened that’s implanted in the brain. It’s like a big, dark, gravitational force. Everything has imploded in there. It’s invisible but it’s got enormous energy. You can’t think about it, you can’t talk about it, and you don’t have words for it. It’s overwhelming.”
He says that within weeks of suffering the trauma, the person begins to cut off from feelings about it that are too painful. Those feelings might be expressed instead in physical symptoms. In children, that might be bedwetting, stomach ache or headache, or through behaviour such as screaming or clinging to a parent. Very young children will
re-enact trauma through drawings and play. Valent says a survey in South Australia after the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 found 23 per cent of children in a bushfire community had psychiatric problems, and that in one kindergarten, fire games were still the most popular games 10 months afterwards.
There is likely to be misplaced guilt over what the person did or did not do during the crisis, Valent says, with children particularly prone to blaming themselves. After Ash Wednesday, one girl believed she had caused the whole disaster: “Magical thinking is more prominent in children. She had wished harm to someone, and harm had come.”
He says adults and children “don’t join the dots [over emotional problems causing the physical symptoms] because behind that lies thoughts like, ‘Life has no meaning because I didn’t save so-and-so’ or ‘because I killed so-and-so’. So they disconnect parts of their minds: emotions, thoughts. But when you kill off parts of yourself, you can’t negotiate what you will kill off. If you kill off guilt, you also kill off love. If you cut off from fear, you experience psychic numbing. You can’t be loving and creative and whole any more.”
Young Matthew blamed himself later for not having been brave enough during the fire, his mother, Tania, says. “He felt a lot of guilt. He felt like he wasn’t being brave because he had cried at one point. He was, in fact, amazingly brave but he didn’t want to hear that. He was being very hard on himself.”
Hardest for both of them was Matthew’s loss of faith in her ability to protect him. In the early days, he would ask what if they had done this or that during the fire, and the outcome had been different. She told him she would never have let him be hurt. He retorted that the parents of dead children had probably said that too.
Principal Jane Hayward is looking after a school full of children who have trouble feeling safe, even though the new Strathewen primary, cut into a hillside overlooking the once-devastated valley, is built to withstand near-apocalypse conditions: huge water tanks, a sprinkler system, metal shutters on all windows and doors, GPS positioning in case helicopter water-bombing is needed. “We can go into complete lockdown,” says Hayward.
Half the students here lost their homes — some were convinced they were moments from death as houses burned down around them — and four parents and several grandparents were killed. Many others were displaced because their homes were too damaged to live in, and the school itself was incinerated. “The children have experienced so much trauma, and their individual stories are so extreme, that it’s going to be a long haul,” Hayward says.
She went to bushfire workshops and was discouraged to hear that families “would be fine after three months”: that’s not what she was seeing. It was more than a year later, when she met a psychotherapist experienced in child trauma, that Hayward learned more.
“The kids have developed ‘hyper-vigilance’ because they know that in the blink of an eye, your world can be turned upside down and changed forever.” This means that when they are told a parent has phoned, their first reaction is fear: “Is everything all right?”
While the school still has high expectations of academic performance, that has had to be tempered with understanding of new problems. “What we found with learning is that children seemed to be chugging along and learning normally. And then you would do a test, or score a piece of work, and wonder, ‘What have I done wrong?’ because there were obvious learning gaps.” The psychotherapist explained to Hayward that after trauma there are often Swiss cheese-type holes in concentration, exacerbated by tiredness from lack of sleep — a phenomenon locals call “bushfire brain”.
Sleep is a precious commodity right across bushfire communities. Says Hayward, “On a windy night when the wind roars through [sounding like a bushfire], no one sleeps. The sound is enough to trigger the fear.”
And then comes the occasional crisis when it becomes clear what is at the heart of an individual child’s distress. Bebbington tells of a boy who had a flashback to when his family was fleeing the fire: “He suddenly remembered that when his dad stopped the car, to tell the mother and the rest of the family in the car behind that the road was blocked by a fallen tree, he had felt his dad had left him to die. He had a complete meltdown, out of the blue.”
She says: “I defy anybody to match the resilience of my community and the kids in it, but just because they are resilient and keep going every day doesn’t mean they’re not extremely sad and traumatised.”
At Whittlesea Secondary College, 19 members of the school community died in the fires, including four students and two whole families, as well as parents, staff and school councillors. Sixty families and seven staff lost their homes. A survey found that 392 of the students had been directly affected in some way.
Principal Terry Twomey says: “If you come into the school, you wouldn’t notice anything. There’s plenty of routine and lots of terrific things going on. But there is a lot happening under the surface too. Many are missing friends they lost in the fires and many are missing not living where they used to live. There’s a whole lot of frustration over the rebuild, and there’s all of the financial and relationship issues that have emerged . . . You can never listen too much.”
He says staff are working hard to try to keep students connected to school, because they know they are at risk. “Ash Wednesday data found a lot of young people became disengaged from learning and didn’t go on to tertiary education at all, and there were some significant mental health issues for that cohort down the track . . . They need to see purpose and a future for themselves.”
It sounds like a discouraging cocktail of troubles. But Ruth Wraith, a former head of the department of child psychotherapy at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the trauma specialist who helped the Strathewen teachers, is neither surprised nor alarmed to hear such stories.
Parents should not fear that children are irreparably damaged when they scream at red sunsets, she says, or even when a very young child talks of suicide. “These are symptoms, or reactions, that are messages from the child about what the meaning of the traumatic experience is to that individual child. To understand, we need to know what need the symptom is fulfilling.”
Of talk of suicide, she says: “What does the child mean when he says those words? It might have a very different meaning for a child than it does for adults. It might mean they want to get further away from trigger reminders, or from fighting in the family. They might want to ensure they will never face bushfire again. It may be that somebody has died and they have overheard an adult conversation that this person is at peace now, so perhaps they have concluded: ‘If I die, I will be at peace.’ ”
The same principle applies to understanding troubled teenagers who are relying too much on sex, drugs or alcohol. “In adolescence, it’s normal to feel immortal and invulnerable. That’s why they take the risks they do. Part of adolescence is learning you’re not Superman; learning what the limits are, in a way that allows you to understand the realities of life, without losing your curiosity and your sense of adventure. These teenagers had all that stripped away in an instant, without the chance to develop a gradual understanding of their mortality.”
She says sex for some might be like an addictive drug, an instant good feeling; or a chance to be close to someone without getting involved; or quasi-medicinal — something to numb the pain. US research suggests teenagers who have experienced trauma are more likely to marry and have children young, she says, either because they think they “may as well get on with life and live it in a hell of a hurry because there could be no tomorrow, or else because of a desperate need to be close to someone, to be held and understood”.
If parents are worried about their children or their families, they should act on that awareness and seek advice, she says.
For Matthew, counselling was the key to recovery. Tania says: “He hated counselling. He used to sit with his arms folded, looking out the window. Then one day she said: ‘Tell me about the friends that you lost.’ ”
Matthew began with his schoolfriends, but the dam really burst when he started talking about one of his neighbours — “The shape of his arms when he used to lift Matthew over the fence, and how strong he was, and how funny he was.
“Then he turned to me and said: ‘And I should have gone to his funeral!’ It had been one of the first funerals, and we were struggling, and I had thought: ‘We won’t do this.’
“And quick as a flash, the counsellor said: ‘You need to have your own funeral for him. You plan it and you conduct it the way you want to.’
“So Matthew invited me and my mum and dad. We all had a balloon. We all wrote a message that we kept private and we tied them to the bottom of the strings.
“Then we let them go at the gravesite of the man and his wife. Then Matthew asked my parents lots of questions about the funeral. His main question was: ‘Were they in the same coffin together?’ They said: ‘Yes, they were.’
“Then he just picked up overnight. I noticed he started to laugh more and enjoy things more. The biggest change was when he was faced with information about the fire, or people were talking about what happened to them. He is now able to hear it without it affecting him.”
Her boy is different to how he might have been had there been no fire. He is more perceptive, more compassionate; a little wise beyond his years, she feels.
Jane Hayward says the same of her charges at Strathewen, who are almost painfully attuned to suffering they see on television, such as the Christmas Island boat disaster, or the New Zealand mine catastrophe. “They’ve got an incredible insight into death and loss. It’s a very adult understanding. They have such insight, and empathy . . . They have a real social conscience, a strong need to do good in the world, to fund-raise for our sponsor child. They haven’t got that childhood innocence, where you can just fluff around and have a good time. They are going to be amazing adults. I think they will change the world.”
* The names of Matthew and Tania have been changed to protect Matthew’s privacy.
For help or information, visit www.dhs.vic.gov.au/em/bushfire-recovery/emotional-support, or call Lifeline on 131 114.

A daughter gone, a life in ruins: Port Arthur remembered

KAREN KISSANE   A decade of mental and physical agony has been one woman’s Port Arthur legacy, reports Karen Kissane.
EVERYONE thinks of a bullet wound as simple, says Carolyn Loughton; extract it, and then the person is up and about in the next scene of that movie or television show. For her, though, it has not been simple at all.
Ms Loughton had to move from Victoria to NSW for the warmer weather because her back was so fragile she could not wear the overcoat needed in a Melbourne winter. She has had more than 30 operations in seven hospitals. For one six-month period, where she could not walk properly following surgery involving pins, she crawled out of bed every morning, crawled into the base of her shower to wash and then crawled into her lounge room where she lay on a couch for the rest of the day.
She has had to pick out of her skin shattered pieces of glass and shrapnel that are still working their way through her body. She has chronic ear infections because her eardrum was shattered by the explosive noise of the barrage of bullets from an Armalite semi-automatic rifle. She tries not to take painkillers until late in the day because they cloud her mind, but her hip and her leg, where doctors cut away bone to be used in grafts in her back, often ache badly.
It is her heart that gives her the most grief – not that her heart is formally on any list of medical complaints. But it has never been the same since the moment her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, was killed as Ms Loughton lay on top of her trying to protect her from the gunman in the Broad Arrow Cafe at Port Arthur on April 28, 1996. Thirty-five people died.
Ms Loughton had seen the gunman and thrown her daughter to the floor. He at first walked past them: “I could have touched him, he was so close. He had the gun up and was shooting people behind me. Then he goes up to the other end of the cafe, and then he came back past us – I maintain because of the locked exit door – and then he saw her and he saw me. When you throw yourself on top of someone you don’t cover their head.”
Ms Loughton was shot through the shoulder blade. She was in hospital for two out of the next three years. She has multiple complications, including a bone infection called osteomyelitis, which, she says, causes her bones “to melt”. “My whole left side has been affected by this. I will never work again. I can’t deal with this pain. I never know how I am going to be from day to day. Then you throw in things like nightmares and depression and insomnia . . . I am bouncing off walls here.”
It has been 10 years now but Ms Loughton’s story comes tearing out of her urgently, testimony to the lingering intensity of the horror and loss. That gunman, says Ms Loughton bitterly, has taken her daughter and her health, “and he’s had a damn good go at taking my sanity”.
At the time, Ms Loughton had just turned 40. She was divorced and working as a public servant in Melbourne. She and her daughter were tourists at the Port Arthur site. In retrospect, her life had been blessedly normal. “When you have been a participating, functioning person in the world and you have a handle on things, and then all of a sudden it’s not the world you thought it was – I have never been interested in the question of why. It doesn’t help with all this stuff now.
“But there is nevertheless a point to it, in that there wasn’t a point to that day. We weren’t at war; we weren’t in a bank hold-up. It was just deliberate, preconceived horror for no reason. There never could be any explanation for it.” She brushes aside questions about evil, other than to say: “There are things in the universe that don’t fit with the way we think things operate.”
Ms Loughton has so many memories – too many memories – but she feels that she is one of the forgotten people. To this day, she remains touched by the public donations that resulted in a $3.5 million fund that was divided between a total of 300 victims and relatives of victims. “It was truly remarkable generosity; all I am able to say is thank you. Thank you.”
There also were crimes compensation payouts from the Tasmanian government to a maximum of $20,000, and the gunman’s money, $1.3 million, was seized and given out to his victims. Ms Loughton is angry, though, that she has had to rely on hand-outs and wonders why there was no insurance payout involved for the tourists who were wounded. She says that no government, state or federal, took responsibility for long-term care of victims.
“I do feel a great injustice has been done to a lot of people by the lack of care after the event. Where is the body in Australia that even exists to do anything? I think people don’t realise how problematic it is. There are very real needs out there.
“What if there had been twice as many victims, if the public hadn’t responded as benevolently as they had? What about public liability insurance for that site? Where do I sit now, even just trying to get private health insurance with all these pre-existing conditions?”
Ms Loughton wonders what happened to the recommendations from Tasmania’s Port Arthur report in 1997, which said there should be continuing packages offering health and social programs for those left permanently damaged by the shooting.
A Special Commissioner for Port Arthur, Max Doyle, reported that in many cases the financial aid offered had not been enough to meet the medical and legal costs involved.
He warned that the Port Arthur tragedy and its continuing effects on the health and lives of families would be comparable to those veterans of the Vietnam War, where stress and trauma-related issues were still causing misery after 30 years.
His comments gave Ms Loughton hope: “Doyle summed it up. It’s not money (you need), it’s services. I thought I would have received a letter saying: ‘What services do you need?’ Have those recommendations been implemented? And if not, why not?”
Rod Wallis, a spokesman for Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon, declined to answer Ms Loughton’s questions when they were put to him by The Age. He wrote in an email response: “There are still a great many raw feelings related to Port Arthur. For that reason, we will decline your invitation to contribute to your article.”
Ms Loughton says: “I do feel a great injustice has been done to a lot of people by the lack of care after the event.” She reads out passages of transcript from the sentencing hearing for the gunman, Martin Bryant, in which the prosecution talked about how victims had been affected: relationships had broken down; some people had started drinking; others suffered from depression, uncontrollable crying, traumatic flashbacks or agoraphobia. Many had feelings of isolation and entrapment, while others reported feeling guilty when they found themselves enjoying life.
Ms Loughton’s voice trembles as she reads out the list. She says, “What hit me when I re-read that transcript was that very little has changed; it’s all still there (now).”
Currently, Ms Loughton herself is in counselling. “To see what we saw in that cafe was enough, but to lose your daughter as well . . .” She finds it expensive, though. “Psychologists are not reimbursed by Medicare and you are talking about $100 a visit.” She also cannot walk very far: “The pain in my hip is excruciating. I get tears in my eyes.”
She does push herself to go out occasionally. “At some point you have to tell yourself, ‘You have to make an effort.’ ”
And she would like more help with services to make her life easier. “When you are broken, psychologically and physically, you haven’t got the wherewithal to access services. It requires a lot of patience and telephoning and a lot of explaining, and I haven’t got that in me. I take the days quietly. I have learned not to push myself, because if I do, I fall in a heap.”
What mental energy she has is taken up with other issues: “I’m trying to get a handle on things like: Is there an afterlife? Am I ever going to see my daughter again? Am I ever going to be well again?”
Ms Loughton does not regularly keep in touch with other survivors. “It’s really hard for me to have continuity in my life just from one day to another just dealing with me.”
She does plan to come back to Melbourne for the 10th anniversary memorial service here on April 28. But Carolyn Loughton says she will never, ever, go back to Tasmania.

First published in The Age.

Children and trauma: chocolates, hugs and tears


The principal of Winchelsea Primary School mothered a whole town as it tried to cope with the drowning of three boys in a local dam.

JUDI Fallon still remembers too vividly the funeral of a small child that she once attended. “He was a two-year-old. His father walked down the aisle of the church, carrying this little white box. I will never forget it, even though it would have to have been 30 years ago.”
So she knew how to respond when it was suggested that the children at Winchelsea Primary School act as a guard of honour for the coffins of the three Farquharson boys. “I said, ‘We can’t do that, because I can’t expose little tackers to being near little white coffins.’ You’ve got to be thinking of those sorts of things. So we put the coffins into the hearses; the children were lined up in front of the hearses and the hearses drove through. There was a distance between the cars and the children, and the children knew what was in the coffins but it was the hearses they saw.”
Children and death are a grievous mix, a mix that Fallon, the principal of Winchelsea Primary School, has learned far too much about it in the past two weeks. Two of her pupils, brothers Jai Farquharson, 9, and Tyler, 7, died along with their two-year-old brother, Bailey, on Father’s Day when the car their father was driving veered off the road and into a dam. Their father, Robert, escaped but all three boys drowned in the car.
Fallon geared up for emergency measures from the moment she got the call from a parent telling her of the tragedy at 11.10 that Sunday night. Winchelsea is a small town of only 1200 people and 190 of those are children at Fallon’s school. In a rural community, she says, “the school is the town and the town is the school”. The children are also closer to each other than city children; those of the same age have often gone to the same kindergarten and been with the same classmates every year at school.
Fallon is a small, determined and practical woman. She talks quickly in this interview, the story pouring out of her. It is hard to know whether the speedy delivery is her normal mode or the result of the enormous tension she has been under for the past fortnight. She is clearly a warm and open woman; during this interview a small child knocks at her closed door to show her a painting he did in art class. Later, in the playground, a little girl runs over to show Fallon the new Band-Aid on her finger. Both are utterly confident of their welcome.
Fallon has been at the school for only 41/2 years but has embedded herself deeply into the local community, her networks extending to all kinds of groups, from the Lions Club to the local police. She knew the shock and grief would be enormous.
She also knew that there were few protocols to guide her; in the next two weeks, she would rely almost entirely on her instincts. She undertook many roles: informal counsellor, funeral planner, media liaison officer. Fallon became the woman who mothered a small town through its loss.
That first night, she telephoned an Education Department manager and told him she would need grief counsellors at her school first-thing in the morning. She did not ring her staff: “They needed a good night’s sleep.” She lay awake all night, thinking of all the people who might be hit by repercussions: teachers, parents, bus drivers, lollipop ladies. Then she got up at 5.30am to face the hardest day of her working life.
At 6.30am she began phoning her 15 teachers to tell each of them personally; over and over she recited the news. When the staff arrived at 8am the grief counsellors were waiting for them. Fallon told the weeping teachers about trauma and handed them pamphlets of symptoms that they or the children might suffer. Shock is not just an emotion; it has a physical effect on the body. Fallon sent her secretary up the road to buy chocolates and jellybeans for staff and students. “When shock hits, you get chemicals in your system and sugar is an excellent way of coping with them. Sweet drinks, sweet food.” She laughs bleakly. “We absolutely bought out their confectionery department, I think.”
Fallon herself was having trouble believing the news: “It’s like, ‘This can’t be happening!’ It took me a long while to accept that there were three little boys lost. I mean, I’m a mother. I can’t imagine imagine losing one of my children, let alone having your whole family wiped out. You ask yourself why. You ask yourself how. But I just go into what I call work mode. You’ve got a job to do. And if you fall apart, who’s going to lead?”
She had students bring the school flag down to half-mast. Then she took the morning assembly in front of 190 children and more than 50 adults. She explained that she had sad news and told them the facts as briefly as possible. She told parents that counsellors were available for them and for the children. “The counsellors were fantastic,” she says. “The children were allowed to come in and out of the library whenever they chose. Everyone was told that they were allowed to do a drawing or a picture or a story. The thing is to get children’s emotions out. Children actually cope better than adults. Adults don’t want to talk about it, but children ask the hard questions.
“We got the community policing squad in first-thing Monday and we sat the grade five and six kids (Jai’s class) down to explain how an investigation might go, hypothetically. Because the kids were asking, ‘Why did the car go down? How long did it take the car to go down? How long would it have taken before the boys died?’ They ask those horrible hard questions, and that’s what you’ve got to give them the answers to.”
Younger children were also imagining the children’s deaths but were satisfied with much simpler responses, often the ones they made up for themselves. Fallon spent a lot of the week on yard duty to keep the media at bay, for fear a distraught child would be further traumatised by being photographed. “I was down in the sandpit with the little ones and one of them said to me, ‘I know, Mrs Fallon, how Tyler died. He didn’t have his seatbelt on.’
“And I said ‘Oh, I think he might have had his seatbelt on. He probably released it to try and get out.’ But ‘Oh no, if you don’t have your seatbelt on you die.’ To him, that was the explanation.
“And another one asked me, ‘Do you think he would have drunk much water?’ And I said, ‘Let’s hope he kept his mouth closed.’ And the child said, ‘Oh yeah, that would have been sensible.’ To her, that was fine. To me, it was . . .” And she makes a strangled sound, as if no word can express the ghastliness. “They think those things. They have visions in their heads. Once we told them it was normal to have visions like that, normal to ask questions, normal to have trouble going to sleep or bad dreams, they got through that and moved on.”
It was suggested that the school should suspend specialist programs such as religious education. Fallon resisted. “I wanted to get the school quickly back to routine. That was just gut instinct too.” She peals with laughter: “It works for me! It also does work for children when they’re upset.”
As well as hovering over her students and staff – Fallon was particularly worried about Tyler’s teacher, a caring woman who had taught him in both prep and grade one, and Jai’s friends, who were old enough to understand the finality of death – Fallon phoned the grieving family every day.
“Mum was still in hospital (sedated for shock) and Dad was an absolute wreck. It took a few days to work out what their wishes were, how they wanted to do things. They were at a loss. And the coroner hadn’t released the bodies, we had to work our way through that. And then a couple of days later Robbie (Farquharson) was taken in for questioning; I had to deal with the homicide squad as well.”
Questions remain about the accident, which left no skidmarks on the road. The car was found with its lights and engine turned off. “My aim was to make sure that everyone was aware that the two parents were supporting each other,” she says firmly. “And the kids need to feel that too . . . This sort of thing can bring a town together. It can also destroy a town. At the moment, here, it’s brought them together.”
There was a torrent of communication in the wake of the tragedy. Fallon received more than 200 emails of support from other principals, and established a sympathetic correspondence with the principal of the Balwyn school that lost two boys to a stabbing just days after the Winchelsea tragedy, and to the Sunshine special school principal who lost a student in a house fire. She phoned her staff every night to see how they were travelling (“Because it’s when you get home that you reflect”).
And she fielded 50 or 60 media calls a day. “There must be a newspaper somewhere or a small radio station up in Upper Quambatook or wherever that hasn’t rung me, but I guarantee everyone else has. And that was something I hadn’t planned for at all.”
Fallon had been asked by two older members of the community to handle the media, a task she took on “to protect Cindy in hospital and Robbie at home . . . So I’ve learned a little bit about the media now. They’re doing their job, that’s all they’re doing. If you give them the little grabs that they need they are happy, and that keeps them off your back and everyone else’s.”
Fallon seems to have a native shrewdness that stood her in good stead in this regard. The grandfatherly man who edits the local paper was given hot tea and warm advice when he came around after the funeral almost too upset to write his report of it.
But when a bigwig from Channel Seven rang, Fallon bartered with him: she would give him an interview if he would put in a request for her to Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy. He agreed, and Essendon footballers – the Farquharson boys’ team – will come to the school next term to help with its memorial garden and to speak to the children on how to handle adversity.
And how does Fallon get through adversity? She schedules. She held her own grief at bay until Thursday morning, the day after the Farquharson boys’ funeral; she cried for the first time when her staff gave her flowers and a card to thank her for her strength and support. But then she rallied again and is holding off until this weekend, the start of the school holidays.
“I’m not quite sure when it will, but it will hit,” she admits. “It’s like you will stub your toe and all of a sudden the world will end and you will think, ‘But this was just a stubbed toe!’
“And it will have nothing to do with the stubbed toe, just with what you have bottled up and not let go. But I have a gorgeous family and two wonderful daughters, and they will look after me.”
· Born in Melbourne
· Degree in marketing, Monash Caulfield, followed by career in advertising/marketing
1975 and 1979
· Birth of daughters
· Returns to university to train as a teacher
· First teaching job, at Traralgon Primary School
· First principal’s job, at Hamilton Primary School
· Principal of Winchelsea Primary School

First published in The Age.