Hope Reclaimed: Living with trauma

Five years ago the city of Christchurch in New Zealand was struck by a devastating earthquake killing 185 people and injuring thousands more. The most violent quake struck during lunch hour on 22 February 2011 throwing the CBD into confusion and panic. Many stone and brick buildings, including the historic Cathedral, were either brought down or severely damaged.

Journalist, Vicki Anderson captures the terror of the moment: “Life is fragile. I stood on the edge of the abyss and peered into the darkness today.”

On a recent visit to Christchurch, we saw evidence of the destruction – buildings boarded up waiting to be sold or demolished, vacant blocks cleared of rubble, retail premises abandoned, housing estates bulldozed, cliff faces cordoned off, roads damaged due to the ground movement.

Not surprisingly, the residents of Christchurch, of which there are 368,000, remain traumatised. They have lived through an experience that was threatening and distressing and also have to contend with the constant reminders of the impact it had on the city’s infrastructure, their homes and community.

Trauma is not limited to individuals but also communities. Natural disasters can have a widespread impact on neighbourhoods. The adverse effect may last for many years.

It seems likely the rebuild of Christchurch will take 20 years. That is 20 years of noise and inconvenience and disruption; 20 years of roadwork and detours and scaffolding and cranes and shipping containers and after tremors and economic uncertainty and mental anguish.

The NZ Ministry of Health has addressed the issue of trauma on their website. They conclude,

A traumatic experience can temporarily shatter basic assumptions about life or other people such as trust, safety, and predictability. The feelings caused may be so intense that unlike normal distress, they do not fade with time, but either continue the same or get worse after a while.

A tragedy on this scale leaves a community battered and broken.  Recovery is complex and can’t be rushed. There are no prescribed timelines for dealing with the trauma.

Prime Minister John Key said the 2011 earthquake had “changed everything”, but had not broken the city’s spirit.

While walking the streets and observing the destruction we came across two examples of the city’s determination to move on. A temporary art installation, The 185 Empty Chairs, and the new Transitional cathedral known as the Cardboard Cathedral are both crucial landmarks and have a key role to play in repairing the confidence of the people of Christchurch and restoring their trust.

185 Empty Chairs

Artist Peter Majendie’s installation 185 Empty Chairs is a collection of chairs of all shapes and sizes symbolising those who lost their lives as a result of the earthquake. The individuality of each chair pays tribute to the uniqueness of each person represented. You’re invited to sit in the chairs, to feel the tragic loss of life, and to connect with the pain of separation.

A display board features a prayer by Michael Leunig.

Dear God,

Give comfort and peace to those of us who are separated from loved ones.

May the ache in our hearts be the strengthening of our hearts.

May our longing bring resolve to our lives, conviction and purity to our love.

Teach us to embrace our sadness lest it turns to despair.

Transform our yearning into wisdom.

With the passage of time, let our hearts grew fonder.


Cardboard Cathedral

The ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ created by Shigeru Ban, an acclaimed architect, is considered the most important building constructed in New Zealand for many years.

The interior of the building radiates light. It is a tranquil setting inviting quiet reflection. Your eyes focus on the steeple, enormous cardboard tubes inserted with timber. Affixed to the wall beyond the altar is a beige cardboard cross. The featured artworks, mounted on the walls of the cathedral, reflect the theme, ‘Resurrection.’

I consider whether it is possible for the people of Christchurch to reclaim hope.

Whatever your experience of trauma, there are two important principles that will support recovery.

(1) The 185 Empty Chairs highlights the need to respect what has been lost, to honour the past, to feel the pain, and to give thanks for the lives of those who died.

(2)  The Cardboard Cathedral, a quick build, fills the gap left by the crumbling Christ Church Cathedral, once the epicentre of the city and a tourist icon. It speaks to our expectations on what lies ahead and reminds us of the opportunities changed circumstances provide.

They are simple instructions: respect the past and be expectant about the future.

Watch footage of the devastation at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-16/drone-footage-reveals-devastated…

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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