In 2012 a friend visited New Zealand, twice struck in recent years by hugely destructive earthquakes. Even while looking forward to seeing old friends in North Island, and landscapes of great beauty and variety, she nevertheless sat on the plane wondering: “Why on earth am I visiting an earthquake zone?”
Once arrived, she was deeply struck by the almost total disappearance of the city of Christchurch and asked her hostess what were the chances of further quakes. “Oh, negligible” came the reply. Five minutes later there was a huge rumble: walls shook, the roof rose and fell back into place, flower pots tumbled over. My friend and her hostess clutched one another until a neighbour ran in: “Nothing to worry about”, he said, “only a four-pointer”.
My friend learned that it takes at least six months following a major ‘quake for the tectonic plates beneath the earth’s crust to settle into new, calmer configurations; while this process is going on, people may expect aftershocks of varying magnitude and an almost constant, background rumble. All this led me to think about the calamity of separation in a more graphic way than usual.
Rumbles and Tremors
These are generally felt by children in families where parental relationships are becoming increasingly fraught. Each slammed door, each angry word confirms to a frightened child that their once safe world has become an unfamiliar battleground, with few hiding places.
Once this occurs, all normality disappears. Daily routines may be replaced by awkward arrangements that suit no one; the debris of their former family life – ‘Dad’s mug’ or ‘Mum’s dressing gown’ merely underline the absence of a departed parent; and the former certainty that both parents eat, bathe and sleep in the same house as them has crumbled to dust.
The two people who are supposed to protect and love you forever are now furious combatants or tearful victims, kicking the debris around or being buried underneath it. Children may be totally confused, fearful of the future, terrified that still worse things may happen, numb with guilt at what they worry they may have done to contribute to this catastrophe; afraid that asking for reassurance may instead provoke an angry or despairing response.
The complex task of sorting out the chaos can rarely be accomplished with speed and smoothness. All that was once shared becomes a list of competing interests, and children soon learn that this may include them.
The family support system – grandparents, aunts, close friends – are likely to cease being available to all and instead become partisans of one side or the other. Even reasonably worked-out plans can be tainted by a momentary misunderstanding or undermined by longer term grievances.
Is a lengthy process, especially if parents try and make it appear that nothing has really changed. Children – even as they yearn for their world to return to the familiar place they once knew – usually recognize that things can never be the same again. In their altered family landscape they need to be shown, by brave and loving parents, the new pathways along which to negotiate it.