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The Power of Family Groups

Noel and Maris Braun

Early in August Father Peter McGrath ran a Sunday for family groups. He asked me along with others to make a presentation on how family groups had influenced my life. I know the value of family groups, I believe, as well as most. Back in the late 70s, Maris and I were interstate transferees. We came from Melbourne . The company I worked for at the time sent me across to Perth on a project and when they abolished my old job offered me a choice of Sydney, Brisbane or Seattle. I thought Brisbane was an ash heap at that time, Maris baulked at a foreign country, so we came to Sydney .

I was concerned about our eldest daughter’s education. I asked one of the girls in the Sydney office to ring around the Catholic Girls Colleges to find out what was involved in a transfer. Everyone raised problems, spoke about waiting lists and entrance exams, etc. Except for Brigidine College , St Ives. Angela could start anytime. We rented at St Ives. We attended Mass at Corpus Christie and then heard of St Anthony’s. Maris gave Sydney three years. What kept her in Sydney? We bought our house at Frenchs Forest a year after arrival? I remember Father Peter’s welcome on our first visit to St Anthony’s. He spotted us as new comers and directed us to join a family group.

We were happy as members of the Casey Group and soon became involved in the parish. In 1982 Father Peter dragged Maris and I out of our comfortable cocoon to become leaders of a new family group. We missed the Casey Group and for a while we were attending their functions as well as organising those of our own. Maris worked hard nurturing our family group. I have fond memories of her hopping into bed on a winter Sunday afternoon, turning on the electric blanket and ringing everybody to get their news and offer her support. Gradually our involvement in the Casey Group fell away as our own family group developed its own culture and traditions. After eleven years we passed on the leadership.

The Casey Family Group invited us to their twenty year celebrations. Slowly we started attending some of their functions. The group was always welcoming. We felt comfortable. In the meantime our own family group deteriorated. Members did not attend functions and it was becoming more and more difficult for the leaders to enthuse the members of the group.

I had two major times of trial. In 1985 Maris spent six weeks in St Vincent ’s hospital, most of the time in intensive care. The first operation was not successful and she had to go through the entire procedure again. I thought she had given up and had lost the will she was so disappointed. I found myself visiting the hospital every day and with four children at home, both the Casey and our own group rallied. I had a freezer full of casseroles and many offers to clean the house and look after the kids. The second time of trail was towards the end of 2004. After years of fighting with depression Maris lost her battle and succumbed to suicide. Many, many people were shocked. They offered their support and compassion. The Casey Family Group gave me great support as did many members of the St Anthony’s community. It’s usual for people to gradually drift away, but the Casey Family Group didn’t. They continued to offer me support and still do. I was pleased that Maris and I had come back to the Casey’s because, apart from one or two outstanding individuals, our own family group has been absent.

What makes one family group successful and another falls away? What makes the Casey’s successful? Is it stability of leadership or a certain predictability about the way the group runs itself? There are probably as many theories as there are people involved in groups.

Back in February 2006 the Casey family group had a weekend at the refurbished Gerringong.  Maris and I had taken our own family group there many times, and I found it sad without her. I missed her and the things we did together. She was always keen on the craft shops. Although I was with very good company, I could not help feeling just a little apart. On Sunday morning I took a walk along the cliff top past the cemetery. At one point the cliff was clear of bushes and as I looked down I thought of Maris and how she felt as she was falling through the air. I felt powerless to step back as if I wanted to fall too and join Maris. I was held to the spot for some time, close to the edge, looking down on the foaming rocks below and at the endless waves crashing their spray against the cliff face. I lost track of time. I would mess up the family group weekend if I jumped, I thought. I made a decision to rejoin the family group for lunch. The family group drew me back to life. Such is the power of the family group.

We went back to Gerringong February this year. I walked along the cliff top again to the same spot, but this time Denis our leader was out walking too, so together we chatted as we walked back to life and lunch with the family group. I have grieved for Maris over the last two and a half years. My grief has engendered a sadness which in itself has produced a passion. This passion has produced a restless energy which, apart from two round-the-word trips, I have channelled into Lifeline and into my writing. The profits from my book Friend and Philosopher I have donated to Lifeline. I thank members of St Anthony’s who bought the book. I was pleased I was able to donate $5,000. My next book Whistler Street will be out shortly. As with Friend and Philosopher, I have dedicated it to Maris’ memory and will donate the profits to Lifeline.

People ask me how I am going. How have I coped? I recently attended a conference at the University of New South Wales on post suicide bereavement. The people who attended were researchers, practitioners in grief counselling and the bereaved. It went very well. One of the papers suggested that the level of coping of a suicide bereaved person is indicated by:

- Participation in a supportive community,
- Physical well being,
- Control over daily activities, and
- A productive and creative life.

I thank God for my supportive community. Where would I be without the love from my family, my friends, the St Anthony’s community, my Casey family group, the friends of Grace Cottage, the Lifeline family, the Catenians? The list goes on. If I did not have my networks, if I had to face the tragedy of losing Maris alone, how could I survive?

"Death leaves a heartache no one can heal
Love leaves a treasure no one can steal".


                                                                   Noel Braun