Listening to whanau tell their story and helping them gain meaning from it is part of an iwi-based research project which aims to help support families who have lost a loved one to suicide.

Led by health and education researchers Tepora Emery (Te Arawa, Tainui) and Candy Cookson Cox (Te Arawa, Ngai Tahu) a suicide "postvention" process and tool is being developed in the research project, Te Waiata a Hinetitama - hearing the heartsong. It follows a number of suicides among young people in Te Arawa between 2008 and 2012.

"Our study is looking at the support needs of whanau who are bereaved by suicide," Dr Emery said.

"Studies have shown that post-suicide, there is a heightened risk for suicide to occur again in those who are most vulnerable, particularly the friends and whanau of those who have taken their life. Suicide postvention processes therefore, can be viewed as preventing suicide. So putting processes in place that are going to protect and secure the future of the coming generations is critical to this end."

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The project was initiated by the Lakes District Health Board Maori team. Lead researcher Dr Emery secured a Health Research Council-funded community project grant, Nga Kanohi Kitea ,which is hosted by the Te Arawa Lakes Trust.

Both researchers interviewed whanau within Te Arawa, who had lost a whanau member to suicide, and key iwi informants.

Whanau are able to read their transcripts, review and add to it. The stories are then deconstructed and analysed and put into a research framework before being presented back to the family and with the help of the researchers they collaborate to find meaning.

"Through the process whanau have been enabled, and assisted, to come to a place of learning and enlightenment about their loved one's death by suicide and their own resultant experiences," Dr Cookson Cox said.

"The research method facilitates review, reflection, and restoration - and it works."

A waiata (song) composed by a Te Arawa kuia about a young man who took his own life has formed the basis of their research. Dr Emery said the waiata, which was still sung today, restored the mana of the young man and that of his whanau.

It involved an important process of life review, and illustrated the point that suicide wasn't necessarily something that had to define the deceased or that of their whanau left behind, she said.

"This kuia has shown us that a Te Arawa position on suicide is ultimately compassionate and understanding. The waiata is her legacy and she has left it here for us to discover our own heartsong and to learn from."

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Assisting the research team are iwi cultural experts and advisers Tione Emery, Ngamaru Raerino and Rawiri Waru. The researchers have worked to ensure that the tool is grounded in matauranga Maori (Maori knowledge) but believe it can be used to help anyone experiencing trauma in their lives.

"At the moment we're thinking about how to best teach people to use this tool knowledgeably; and to make it a user-friendly resource that is accessible to the community. If it can be used widely to get the results that we're seeing now that would be extremely helpful in our efforts to reduce the number of suicides across Aotearoa," Dr Cookson Cox said.

"We've seen that it works. In the next stage of the research we will look to trial it with an even wider group of participants; for example, suicide support groups and counsellors and other interested parties, and, if desired by them, teach them how to use it."

Findings from the study will be presented to Te Arawa community in November. They will also present at the Lakes District Health Board's Research and Ethics Committee seminar followed by the World Indigenous Health Conference in Cairns, Australia, in December.

Dr Emery and Dr Cookson Cox are still recruiting participants for the project. If you are from Te Arawa, have experienced a suicide in your whanau prior to 2008, and would like to take part, contact Dr Emery (021) 215 2174 or (07) 346 0908 or mail: tepora.emery@xtra.co.nz