It’s fine weather on the West Coast today. A community’s grief will be shared nationwide. When I heard that consideration was being given to a memorial service in Christchurch I muttered ‘no, it must be Greymouth’. And so it is appropriately. The camaraderie that is the Coast has been respected.
Grief comes in many guises. The unexpected death of a loved one has a numbing effect. Mining is a risky business – the mind knows that but daily safe return after safe return lulls people into a sense of security – both for those going off to work and those who see them off. Suddenly, a heart-wrenching event, fear, horror and the torment of long nights descend.
The Pike River mine explosion shook more than the Greymouth community. A disaster of this scale affects a small country. Nationwide, our thoughts went out to the victims, they were husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, colleagues and friends and of those who lived in their locale. And to all who loved them.
31 men – like all of us, with breakable bodies - went off to work that morning. They went cheerfully, grumpily, carelessly, routinely, anxiously, thoughtfully, resignedly, excitedly (one was a lad on his first day) as people go to work everywhere. All anticipated coming home that evening. But theirs is a dangerous trade. Two near the entrance miraculously survived the first explosion.. For the other 29, their loved ones began a terrible wait. The dread! Rumour! Hope, one of humanity’s grandest emotions lingers long against the odds.
And then to be told finally there was no hope left. The tumult of emotions. Why me? Why us? Why wasn’t more done? The future? Priorities are re-scrambled. Values are re-asserted differently. Plans are discarded. Friends and flowers become the order of the day. Words fail, hugs cannot stop tears but they show concern and care. ‘If onlys’ flit through the mind, align with guilt, pain and regret. What will we do this Christmas? The TV camera showed men in a pub putting aside a jug for their lost mate.
The fireball of last Sunday’s explosion which we saw on yesterday’s computer and television screen was frightening. Humanity has challenged nature down the centuries. It is bigger than us. Puny, we challenge back, even in the midst of catastrophe. This tragedy reminds us of these facts.
Shortly the blame/game will start. But today is a day to honour the lost miners, indeed all who laboured at the coal-face down the years here and overseas, some of whom have suffered a similar fate. To the living the service acts as a focal point, offering support and dignity in distress. and as a ceremony offers comfort of a sort. .The grieving are not alone in their grief and their loss
I wrote the above section this morning. I’ve now watched the service. The individual tables for the 29 miners which were arranged by the family were memorable. One moved me to tears – children’s toys with a picture book ‘The Hungry Frog’. I can imagine the father reading the book to his children. It was a poignant symbol for the community’s loss.
I was struck with the poem written and read for the occasion by Helen Wilson. She described the miners going off to work that morning planning the weekend’s activities in their minds, going fishing, taking the dog for a run, mowing the lawn. The run-of-the-mill things we do which we take for granted. Planned, anticipated.but never done! That's how death often happens.
John Key made an excellent speech. He talked about his own childhood and losing his father. His ability to reveal a common touch has always been one of his political assets. I think he has revealed good leadership over this issue. On the spot frequently but in the background, not taking the limelight but there in the background supporting the local people. The evening after the announcement there was no hope of finding the miners alive he spoke in the Beehive theatre. His speech there was good. But it was in the question and answers that he excelled. As an ex-prime Ministerial speech-writer I watched in admiration. The acid (and asset) test comes after the ‘Boss’ has delivered the prepared speech.
All in all the service was moving. Part of its appeal was it amateurish nature. It was the Coast – heartfelt, gawky, improvised, sincere, sentimental, disjointed but above all well-meaning. I was pleased to be a participant from afar.
Poet Brian Turner wrote a moving elegy on West Coast poet Peter Hooper’s death. He describes attending the funeral. I borrow some lines from the poem as befitting today’s service.
‘There’s scripture, hymns, eulogies and that undeniable
finality that never fails to reduce me to tears.
Time alone will fill the spaces your going’s opened up
like evening shadows stealing into the valleys
of the Grey and Arahura that you knew and loved.’
Shared loss is tribal. All loss takes a long time to heal. Communal memory is long. It assists in the healing and delays the process. In twenty year's time the Coast will be talking about the events of the last two weeks, today, and the weeks ahead as decisions are made about what to do next.