My brother was shot in the head on a Monday night.
He was shot pretty much between the eyes. And that was that. Small hole at the front, big hole at the back.
But here’s a thing. Me and dad remember it differently. We were the ones who went into the Coroner’s Office to identify him.
Dad went in because he was, well, Dad. Me, because I was spirited and young and desperate to see my brother whom I loved very much. I mean, you can’t knock on my door and tell me he’s dead and not let me see him. I need to see him so I know. You know?
The policeman who met us said I shouldn’t go in. It was ‘not a pretty sight’. And I guess he meant unsuitable for the young woman I was. I was 23. At that stage we knew he’d been shot but not what with. I didn’t know if I would recognize him, if half his face would be missing. It wasn’t. He looked just like him, but dead.
I remember a band-aid across the small hole in his forehead. Dad doesn’t. He remembers a wound. I’m inclined to believe his memory over mine, but I’m not sure why. We probably sank equal amounts of booze in subsequent years to numb the pain (or unleash it) while we sifted through the what-ifs and memories.
My brother was lying on something; can’t remember if it was a table or gurney or what. He was in small room and we were in another with a glass wall between so we could see him to identify him; but we weren’t allowed to touch. He had not been autopsied yet. There was a police investigation into the cause of death: small hole in the front, big hole in the back was evidently not evidence enough.
I started to kick up because I really wanted to go in. It was a very strong and I think primal instinct I felt. To reach out, to sit with him, to touch his forehead and check his chest for signs of breathing. To talk to him and ask what happened. To start understanding the fact of it.
But Dad silenced me with a look. I demurred and forced down a flash of anger: fuel for the pool of grief and rage taking shape inside.
We went home then and drank tea and talked to the police when they came and talked to friends when they came and tried to make sense of it among ourselves with the few details we had. We stared at the walls, and at each other, and wandered round the house with no particular intent. We slept, and didn’t sleep, and drank more tea.
Reporters called us at home to ask for details and see if we wanted to talk about it. We didn’t.
We were in shock and disoriented and in no mood for strangers. We wouldn’t have had the words anyway.
I suppose we could have said: It’s such a shock. We just can’t believe it. It’s like the rug’s been pulled out from under us. He was such a lovely guy. He didn’t deserve this. We’re devastated. He was so young. We don’t know what we’re going to do without him.
But really there aren’t words to describe all that we felt in those bewildering days.
So why did the reporters call?
Because my brother died in a murder-suicide. He was the murdered party. The guy who shot him killed himself soon after. They were buried in the same cemetery three days later, a few hours and a few hundred yards apart.
Why did it happen? No idea. Men, booze, guns and inner demons is probably explanation enough. As far as we know there was no underlying quarrel, no bad debt or bad blood or infidelity. But who knows?
Would changing the gun laws have prevented his death? No. The guy had a licence for his guns.
Would a public awareness campaign about firearm safety have helped? I doubt it. The guy knew about firearm safety. But he was, I think, drunk.
Would a ban on alcohol have saved them? No. They’d have been high on bootlegged something or other instead.
Could a law change or a campaign or a charitable trust set up in his memory have spread the lessons of this tragic event and prevented someone else’s death?
I don’t think so.
It was a personal tragedy. One of 2,229 deaths in New Zealand that month.
Everyone dies, you know. Sooner or later, one way or another. Some deaths are more spectacular, sure. But is my brother’s death any more tragic or painful than the guy down the road who died of cancer that day?
I don’t think so.
Death sucks. It hurts. It takes ages to get over. It’s unbeatable and frightening. But it just is, so we may as well get used to it.
I started writing this a while ago because it started to form itself in my head. I started finishing it after I read Emma Woods’ eloquent piece in the Sunday Star Times describing how she feels about her son Nayan’s death and the sentence passed on the driver who killed him. And I’m posting this as the families of 29 trapped miners wait to find out what’s happened to them.
I don’t know how those families are feeling right now, nor how they feel about the media circus that’s temporarily set up in town.
But it seems to me that what Emma Woods was saying – to Michael Laws, who’d written a column about the court case, and the media in general – was that they weren’t representing her right. She didn’t feel what they implied she should.
And nor do I.
I tire of the terminology of death. People with cancer are brave battlers, every loss is terrible, every death a tragedy, a life snatched away in its prime; every family is reportedly on a mission to prevent anyone else dying in this sad and terrible way, no matter how uncommon the cause of death, or how ordinary.
You know what I’d like?
I’d like reporters to stop hounding people if their father or son or sister has died a spectacular death and ignoring them if not.
I’d like a moratorium on asking people then and there if they plan to lobby for a law change, or set up a fund to raise awareness and try to save others. Leave it for a year, eh. Give them time to think.
And I’d like news writers to make an effort not to be patronizing. To treat death more as the inevitable part of life that it is and less as the senseless work of a dark reaper. To treat grieving families as people doing their best in a tough situation, and not as emotional simpletons.
If no death is a good death, then we are failures all.