Nearly three months ago, Emerald Beach experienced the tragedy and shock of a fatal shark attack on one of the most perfect Sunday beach mornings. It was the 5th September, 2021, Father’s Day.
The young man, Tim, who died on the beach, was not long married and his beautiful wife, was expecting their first child. This accident rocked her life, their family and the small beach side communities of the region with many first responders, being local surfers in the water with Tim at the time.
There was a surge of community grief and shock and an outpouring of support and connection.
A few of the locals connected with two young indigenous Garby men who offered to conduct a Gumbaynggirr Healing Smoking Ceremony. This gentle, slow ceremony opened with an acknowledgement of country and a song in language; and an invitation to join in around the smoking leaves of the lemon myrtle, cleansing the space within and around each person with the smoke. A bowl of ochre was passed around for people to place the ‘colour and earth’ on their faces. The inner circle included the family and friends of Tim; and the first responders and their families. One by one, or in small groups people knelt down in front of the smoking bowl. Words of love and support offered, tears flowed, some went back more than once.
This beautiful ceremony was followed by a Water Blessing and Paddle Out.
As a local celebrant, I was invited to lead the community into the water blessing and paddle out and close the ceremony. When asking the organisers what they envisioned. They were unsure, and eventually just left it up to me.
I knew that what I spoke had to be brief and have the details necessary to inform people what was going to happen after the smoking ceremony. I also connected with what I sensed, from speaking with those impacted, was a strong need for mourning, connection, community, safety and a way to move forward, befriending the ocean as well as farewelling Tim.
After much deliberation, I wrote the following that I used as my guide on the day,
“Thank you to the Gumbaynggir community and the Garby elders, for the deeply moving ceremony. Thank you also to the Thompson family, the first responders and their families for being here at this difficult time.
Welcome to everyone, as we bear witness to the grief and loss and our wish to reconnect with the ocean as a friend and ally.
It will be about 20 minutes before the surfers get into the circle out the back. The invitation is to connect with your body, your heart, the conditions of the surf and check in if it really is your day to paddle out. There is also the space to engage in the water blessing here on the shoreline. Even if you get part way out and decide to come back you will be respected for your choice.
You can move into place now along the shoreline for this next ritual or you might want to get a drink or sit down for a while and then come into place as we see the surfers get into place. If you choose to reach out and hold hands please be mindful of the Covid restrictions.
Once the surfers are out the back in the circle there will be a period of silence for a few minutes and then they will splash and call out before coming back in.
The invitation is to feel your feet on the sand, with the water around your ankles – ensure you are supported wherever you stand. It’s a time to acknowledge the shock, trauma, heartbreak and grief… and here on the shore, allow the waves to wash over our feet and legs…welcoming in a sense of care and support from your family, friends and community. We will all have different ways of being with what is, and it will change over time. Yet together, we lean into community and connection to find our way forward into safety, trust, peace, understanding… you may wish to use this time to, silently offer any prayer or blessing – receiving the waves that flow in and watching them recede. The mourning ebbing and flowing in our lives.
May you open to the vast ocean of love and care that is here… may peace be with you.”
Photographs by Sharyn Coffee.
Sharyn wrote, ‘Here’s a few of my drone shots from today’s ceremony. My daughter, Lucy, and son in law, Dan, were in the paddle out. When Lucy got out of the water I told her it was so nice that they formed a heart. She responded, ‘We were forming a circle!’
Articles and supportive posts popped up over the following weeks on the local community Facebook page, offering much needed care and also practical information.
Emerald Beach psychologist, Lisa Brown, posted an article about the impact of trauma on our lives.
“There is much pain and trauma in our community connected to Tim’s death on Shelley’s Beach two weeks ago…There are many different responses and needs in this time. Coming together as a community offers support, unspoken and spoken, to those whose lives have been forever changed and traumatised, at whatever level.
Trauma is a natural human response when we witness or hear stories of a violent death, or when we feel we could die or someone we love could die. Our nervous system responds and is activated with fight, flight, freeze or overwhelm, our relaxation response is overridden, and it becomes difficult to be still. This physiological response is normal, but there are things we can do to support our body, mind and heart to return to a balanced state and prevent serious issues that can arise when post-traumatic stress becomes chronic.
Our challenge is that many of us have also experienced other traumas throughout our lives. As a community, we also faced devastating bushfires; we are living through a pandemic, separated from family and friends and witnessing a world changing at a rapid rate.
Stress accumulates in our nervous system and post-traumatic stress can show up as sleep disturbance, intrusive thoughts, feeling anger, guilt or shame, irritability, substance abuse, addictions, nightmares. There can be avoidance of things we may have previously enjoyed including swimming and surfing, visiting family and friends and feeling emotionally numb or a re-experiencing of the trauma which can happen vicariously, even if you weren’t there but heard stories of the incident.
The nervous system can become chronically activated and you may forget how to relax, to be still and present. As a psychologist, many of the referrals I receive for people experiencing depression and anxiety are frequently underpinned by trauma that happened years before. Left unresolved, this can contribute to relationship breakdowns, substance abuse, addiction to social media, and chronic health problems. All these things can be prevented with relatively simple practices that support the body, mind and heart to heal and re-balance.
Following trauma, you will never again be the same yet you can heal, and reconnect to life by developing skills and tools that help you to manage your experiences and in doing so, prevent poor outcomes in your health and relationships.
This simple diagram relates to trauma. If you find yourself in the red zone or the grey zone, please recognise this as an indicator to act – know you are not alone, reach out to family and friends and/or seek professional help. The green zone is where we can heal and integrate our experiences.
In these moments in time, we’re called to be the best, balanced versions of ourselves we can be – this is how we take care of each other.”
Lisa Brown, Psychologist, Mindfulness and Yoga Teacher. With Wendy Haynes. Graphic by Halliday Quinn Limited.
I also wrote and posted an article for the community called, ‘Talking with Children about Traumatic Events’.
A few weeks later, local surfer, Christopher Farmer, wrote an article that offered support and care to the surfers and, most importantly, information about taking precautions in the water.
“Just spotted a large shark around 3m chasing bait in the break zone (waist deep) at Serenity’s Beach. Couldn’t tell the species, but just letting you all know. Stay close together surfers, don’t let it stop you enjoying the ocean. But keep an eye on behaviour, such as finning on the surface, circling you or fast bursts towards you and try to avoid putting yourself amongst schools of bait, especially Australia salmon. Not all sharks will bite a human and, it’s important to remember, that each individual animal has its own personality and hunting methods. Most sharks prefer not to bite, but as we all know from the recent incident it can very very rarely happen by mistake. Know they are always going to be there every day, respect them and know when to move away. Understanding behaviour is key to avoiding any further accidental tragedies. Stay safe legends.”
The support needed and the healing for post traumatic stress and the grieving journey will be different for everyone. See Resource Support List below after these photographs.
Photographs by Norm Farmer
“Beyond the Bite aims to help people who have been affected physically, emotionally or psychologically by shark bite events. A lot of people who are impacted are usually thrown into the media and public eye for a short period of time due to the sensational and rare aspect of shark bite events. But once the light has faded, many people are left with the physical and mental scars that come with such an event, and that’s where we try to help. By creating programs and helping guide survivors to services that will help them live the new normal. We go beyond the bite.”
Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
Headspace 1800 650 890
Lifeline 13 11 14
MensLine Australia 1300 789 978
QLife 1800 184 527
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
Lifeline 24/7 Crisis Support 13 11 14 https://www.lifeline.org.au/
Headspace Ph: 6652 1878 The National Youth Mental Health Foundation provides early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds. Headspace can help young people with mental health, physical health (including sexual health) alcohol and other drug services, work and study support. https://headspace.org.au/headspace-centres/coffs-harbour/
National Association for Loss and Grief NSW (NALAG) for one-on-one phone support Ph: 02 6682 9222 https://www.nalag.org.au/
Black Dog Institute Researching the early detection, prevention and treatment of common mental health disorders. https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/…/lifespan…/
Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au/…/beyondnow-suicide…
Our Crisis Heroes A free community platform where you can offer or seek help. Need help with shopping, supplies, food, mail, business or emotional support? https://www.crisisheroes.com/
eHeadspace provides free online and telephone support and counselling to young people 12 – 25 and their families and friends. If you’re based in Australia and going through a tough time, eheadspace can help. https://headspace.org.au/eheadspace/
Beyond Blue Support Service | Web Chat Web Chat can support you by providing information and advice about anxiety and depression, pointing you in the right direction to seek further support and identifying other services that meet your needs https://online.beyondblue.org.au/#
SANE Australia Whatever your age, ethnicity, faith, disability, sexuality, or gender identity, we have something for you. https://www.sane.org/
RAMHP (Rural Adversity Mental Health Programme) Let’s talk Understanding trauma https://www.crrmh.com.au/…/disasters-trauma-mental-health/
Where do you go when you’re afraid you’ll kill yourself? (ABC News) https://www.abc.net.au/…/no-feeling-is-final/10297760…
My girlfriend told me she was suicidal. Here’s what happened next https://www.abc.net.au/…/my-girlfriend-told-me…/10341474
Preventing Suicide (All In The Mind) https://www.abc.net.au/…/preventing-suicide/10344970
Ways to stay alive (All In The Mind) https://www.abc.net.au/…/ways-to-stay-alive/10352196
No Feeling is Final https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/no-feeling-is-final/ The Big Feels Club (blog)