Surprised by growth
Five years have passed since 173 people lost their lives as an estimated 400 bushfires burned across Victoria. An additional 414 people were injured, and many homes, businesses and lives were damaged or destroyed in what is considered Australia’s worst natural disaster, in which some arson was involved.
The state recently paused to acknowledge and reflect on the dreadful losses; but what of those who are left to carry on?
Rhonda Abotomey lost her brother, sister-in-law and nephew, as well as a friend of her nephew who was visiting at the time, in the Gippsland Black Saturday fires. She describes the event as being like a vortex that drew her to its centre and took over her life.
She describes how her brother rang to say the fire was nearby, and that they had activated their fire plan. It was their last contact. She found out the next day that her family had perished.
“From then on it was just all-consuming,” she says. “I was left with my remaining family to make arrangements for funerals, to salvage remnants from the ashes and organise the bulldozing of the remains of their home, and complete the paperwork. I participated in the Royal Commission, Coronial and arson judicial investigations. It has gone on for years. Often it felt like it was happening despite you, just propelling you forward.”
Since that time, Ms Abotomey has gone through a range of emotions and demands, the deep grief obviously, the confusion and overwhelming that one might expect, the lived reality of complex disaster trauma and multiple traumatic bereavements.
But there is something else, something that took her by surprise.
“As part of my response to this trauma, I started writing. Words, phrases, feelings, just for myself.”
Monash University professor Laura Brearly, shaped some of them into poetry – an act which opened up a new and satisfying creative outlet for Ms Abotomey.
Her writings, poetry and her bushfire recovery initiative, Seeds of Compassion (SOC) Day, were subsequently invited into the Melbourne Museum Black Saturday Bushfire collection.
An accountant during her professional career, and a stay-at-home mother for many intervening years, she says she knew nothing about writing poetry before Black Saturday.
“All of a sudden at my kitchen table the words just started flowing, and I have been writing poetry ever since.”
She also surprised herself by her desire to advocate for improvement to systems and services, which led to her engagement with the Bushfire Royal Commission as a witness, her role as a member of the government Bushfire Bereaved Advisory Group and other activities to advocate for deeper understanding and consideration of the needs of people affected by Black Saturday.
Ms Abotomey is now engaged as a research assistant in the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne, providing input to a Melbourne Social Equity Institute-funded project seeking to re-theorise and expand understandings of post-disaster response experiences,
It will examine the role of post-traumatic growth (PTG), and create resources in hard copy and online that can be widely and rapidly disseminated during future disasters, which may support post-traumatic growth. A report will be published and launched at an exhibition of symbolic representations participants have chosen to share.
Lead investigator on the project is Associate Professor Louise Harms, who is also a Chief Investigator on the Beyond Bushfires ARC Linkage Project.
Associate Professor Harms says for people affected by disasters, psychosocial recovery has primarily been conceptualised as the resolution of post-traumatic stress.
“The project seeks to advance practical and theoretical understandings of disaster-affected people’s trauma response experiences,” she says.
“Through interviews which Rhonda will conduct with 20-30 fire-involved people from a diversity of fire-related experiences, this study will explore the question: ‘How do people understand their experiences of post-traumatic growth after the Black Saturday bushfires?’
“Evidence now exists to support the incorporation of post-traumatic growth (PTG) understandings into disaster recovery service efforts, yet this has not to date been achieved in Australia. Rhonda’s experiences certainly support that concept.
“PTG recognises that people commonly report that trauma has also been positively transformative – of their sense of self, relationships with others, appreciation of life, new opportunities and spiritual growth,” Associate Professor Harms says. “PTG focuses attention on the strengths people have and can develop. At the five-year anniversary point, this focus is considered all the more relevant, with potential to impact national service systems, ensuring that more inclusive and responsive disaster-recovery services are developed.”
The researchers also point out that not only have understandings of disaster recovery been focused on the negative symptoms of PTS, they have relied on an understanding of impact as locality-based.
An impetus behind the project was a conversation which Ms Abotomey initiated with Associate Professor Harms, to express her frustration that research, recovery activities and services tended to be overwhelmingly locality-based.
“Because I have a Melbourne postcode, I have at times been advised I don’t meet the criteria of fire-affected, which I certainly am. I feel this is a flaw in the system and wanted to make this clear,” she says.
Ms Abotomey’s advocacy work has contributed to consideration of changes to some definitions and systems.
One of the project’s aims is to collect individual PTG stories from fire-affected people from a range of locations and circumstances, to acknowledge and capture the diversity of fire impacted and involved people and to add balance to the existing important focus on community recovery and community rebuilding.
“The emphasis on community is highly favoured and promoted,” Ms Abotomey says, “but for those who have lost family or things, who are individuals not aligned with a particular community or who don’t live in or near a Black Saturday fire location, that emphasis can feel very isolating and exclusive. We want to be as inclusive as possible, and gather a diversity of stories and insights of people living with Black Saturday loss, trauma and experience that isn’t bound to postcodes.”
Ms Abotomey often prefers the word ‘response’ to ‘recovery’, saying that recovery implies a completed act, an end to ‘incapacity’.
“In reality post-traumatic stress and growth are parallel journeys, part of a person’s ongoing multi-faceted response to trauma. No one would ever wish to have this experience, but I think there needs to be a safe space for people to also voice the positives they may have unexpectedly experienced, since this awful thing did happen, and not feel pressure to ignore or hide these positives.
“Post-tramatic growth is a light to be spoken about, shared, celebrated and promoted in an otherwise dark and difficult space”.
The project Reconceptualising and supporting disaster recovery as growth: informed by people affected by the Black Saturday bushfires, is seed-funded by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. Other members of the research team are Dr David Rose (Department of Social Work), Associate Professor Robyn Woodward-Kron (Melbourne Medical School), Dr Jenny Waycott (Melbourne School of Engineering) and Associate Professor Barbara Bolt (VCA School of Art).
For more information about the project, please email
Gift of Hope (…the sanctuary of shared pain)
By Rhonda Abotomey , edited by Laura Brierley
We come together Linked by deep common threads of suffering
And even deeper threads of resilience and connection
Together in our suffering and survival There is time to nurture and encourage
Conquering this bushfire Through spirit and passion
Pillars of strength Warriors of quiet invisible force
Expressing the most basic of human needs Love and care
A banquet of soul food Sustenance for the days ahead
People in action powered by huge hearts Poetry in motion
Testament to the power of compassion And the priceless gift of hope.
Read by Premier John Brumby at the first anniversary state memorial of Black Saturday.
About the Melbourne Social Equity Institute
The Melbourne Social Equity Institute supports interdisciplinary research across the full spectrum of life including health, law, education, housing, work and transport, and their intersections with gender, disability, mental health and more. The Institute brings together researchers from across the University of Melbourne, government and the community to identify the unjust practices that arise at these intersections and work towards finding ways to ameliorate disadvantage.
The Institute’s inaugural conference, Imagining Social Equity, will be held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground from 28 February to 1 March. More: http://socialequity2014.conorg.com.au/
Comedian Corinne Grant will launch the Conference with a free public event on 27 February with a debate titled Equality: is it fair?