A Rotorua woman who lost her son to suicide says she has been "transformed" since taking part in the iwi-based research project, Te Waiata a Hinetitama - hearing the heartsong.

Paula Tavai was interviewed as part of the project after dealing with the death of her 20-year-old son, Donny McGregor, in 1994.

"I went to a hui about it [in April] because over the years I wanted someone to steer me in the direction so I could follow up on a few things," she said.

"So I came and listened, had a few comments and walked away thinking how nice it was to finally have a conversation about it."


Paula was invited to be interviewed and alongside the researchers she was able to analyse her transcript and continually contribute throughout the process. She said her thoughts and feelings on what affected her son's death had been suppressed for years.

"That was the start of my journey, to finally tell my story that's been hidden for 20 years," she said.

For Paula's family, Donny's death by suicide was a first and the whanau have found it hard to talk about him and the way he died

"The word suicide, nobody mentions it. You learn after a while [it being described as] 'unexpected', 'people who have passed' but very rarely the 'S' word and that was annoying me. I don't think people need to talk about it all the time, but it needs to be spoken of more so people can say the word," she said.

Organising Donny's tangi and supporting her parents through their grief delayed her own grieving.

"Grief was there but it didn't come until later on. My main concern were my parents. Everything was suppressed while I did that.

"My father was devastated, Donny was named after him and I was worried about my father more than me. My dad wouldn't look at him when he was brought to the house, he wouldn't go near him. He didn't turn his back but had his chair not facing him, so he couldn't see his moko (grandchild)."

Paula said both her parents were able to spend time alone with her son and farewell him before the tangi ended.


"After everything, I lost the plot. I drank, I smoked pot, nobody ever mentioned him again, and I was angry, really angry. Nobody would sort of come near me because I had such terrible anger.

"Then his friends told me a lot of different stories and a psychologist came up to me. He said Donny was going to him for months for help and this is where I found out he had been molested. That made it worse because I was thinking, 'Who the hell was it? I don't know who or when, it's just a guessing game so that broke me. I was thinking, 'Is that why you turned out like you did?' But I will never know and that was held in for years.

"I did try to get help, I remember being so devastated and not knowing what to do with myself. So I went and sat in a mental health place, its office area, and just cried and cried and cried. They asked me, 'Are you all right?' I said, 'I really need to see someone' and was told there was no one available. I told them I was going sit there until there was," Paula said.

"A lady came out, saw me sitting there and walked past everyone at their desks and took me into her office and I just released. But that was it, there was no follow up. In those days there was no support for a parent of a suicide child, nothing whatsoever, so you just try and hide it."

Being part of the study gave her an opportunity to tell her whole story.

"I didn't have to hold back and didn't want to because it's been locked in for such a long time. Re-reading the script is what has helped with the healing too. Reading it the first time was hard but then I realised I had forgotten something, so I added that in. It was bringing it all back, seeing it there and knowing the purpose of it. The ladies have been awesome I really do thank them because for some reason something has lifted, I'm more confident," she said.

Paula is now determined to learn as much as she can to be able to help and support other families who have lost a loved one to suicide.

"I would like to get into this subject but I would like to do it as a mother of suicide victim. I've seen what's out there for parents and for me I would listen to somebody who has been through the experience, I don't believe in reading books about this subject because the emotion is not in there. That's what I'm aiming for, I don't have any degree but I do have life experience."

Paula believes more support is needed with Maori organisations involved.

"There needs to be somewhere people can go, without being judged, without having to wait for an appointment. Some whare of some sort, where you can have a cup of tea and feel safe. It's just there so people can go and grieve.

"I don't mind speaking out and being out there about this. I'm trying to be out there. Being able to speak about Donny has given me that strength and I'm grateful for this [research] and being a part of it."