What can I do? Reflections following the New Zealand terrorist attack.

Almost four weeks ago a terrorist went into two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed 50 people while they prayed. Another 45-50 were wounded. This wasn’t the first terrorist attack on New Zealand soil but it felt like it. It was driven by hate for people on the basis of perceived differences.  A common response in the hours and days after the attack was ‘this isn’t us’ but, for lots of reasons, I think we (pākehā – New Zealanders of European descent – particularly) are realising that there is more of this in Kiwi society than we have been conscious of or willing to admit. It has left us all reeling – so much sadness, horror, shock – with an overwhelming sense that we are mourning both a huge loss of life but also a loss of that sense of New Zealand as a place of safety and refuge. Kiwis and the Islamic community have gathered around the world (including London) to share our grief and stand together in solidarity.

In this collective response we have seen and heard of what might be called little things, small acts, that have made a difference. One such commonly-reported in the days after the attack was the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, wearing a hijab while meeting with representatives of the Muslim community at Canterbury Refugee Centre in Christchurch. “I gave it really little thought, it was so obvious to me that it would be the appropriate thing to do…What I underestimated was that it gave people a sense of security. It didn’t occur to me for a moment that there would be those women in the community who felt unsafe, wearing, so obviously, their faith”, she said. A New Zealand imam, Gamal Fouda, responded to this simple act: “Thank you for holding our families close and honouring us with a simple scarf”.

This act has been backed up time and time again over these past two weeks. By people turning up to stand in protection and solidarity of those praying last Friday. Through people showing care by reaching out to those they know and meet – expressions of grief and loss, hugs, flowers. Donations to Victim Support and gifts to foodbanks – there has been an outpouring of love and care. When the question is ‘what can I do in the face of such horror?’, it turns out the answer is a lot.

These things – turning up, offering flowers, giving someone a hug, sending messages of love – can feel tiny in response to events like this, but they aren’t. For me these glimmers of hope and care offer people who are overwhelmed far more than the act itself belies. I have been musing, following a brief conversation on Twitter, about whether the term ‘little things’ belittles the importance of these acts, and therefore the focus they receive from the powers that be (I’m paraphrasing here). I think calling them ‘little things’ or ‘small acts’ can take away from the power they have to bring light into dark times but I also think that there is something empowering about knowing that I can make a difference with something small within my gift as a human, like a smile, a hug or a message of support.

Over the past weeks, for a variety of reasons including Christchurch, I have received beautiful messages of love and support and these have felt far more important to me than a few words sent in a moment. They have given me hope, made me feel loved, reminded me I’m not alone, encouraged and supported me. These acts of humanity, of solidarity, have such power in healthcare, and life generally. An act may feel small to the giver in that moment, but be so important for the person, or people, receiving it.

In healthcare we meet people who feel overwhelmed by the circumstances they find themselves in all the time – both people using services and those providing them. I think, perhaps, we underestimate the power of a message of support, of a smile or a hug, of allowing space for the emotion. Finding ways to say “I am here with you in this” can only help us care for each other better.


Fiona McKenzie is a patient and runs He Tangata Consulting.

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