Kia Kaha = Be Strong
Kia Kaha’ in Maori means ‘Be Strong’ ( or sometimes ‘Stay Strong’). It is a regularly used phrase here in New Zealand in a huge range of places. For example, when the three kiwi soldiers who died in Afghanistan last week were returned home in recent days, Kia Kaha has often been repeated to their friends, families and colleagues.
It is a warm expression of support and encouragement, sometimes used as a greeting; used by Maori and increasingly by Pakeha (white-skinned New Zealanders) alike. It is uniquely New Zealand, and I admit that I like that. If regular readers hadn’t noticed I am proud to be a kiwi.
Kia Kaha Christchurch
The phrase Kia Kaha Christchurch became a popular call after 22 February 2011, when we were struck by the deadly earthquake that killed 185 people. At the time, and since because it continues to be heard today as we rebuild, it seemed like a nice expression of support that the rest of the country was giving us. Actually even Prince William used the phrase when he addressed many Christchurch residents at a Memorial Service in the months after. Someone had clearly told him that it would be a welcome phrase to use, and I’m sure many who heard the speech were encouraged by it.
Yet to be honest, the use of kia kaha after the earthquakes is nice in terms of support but it just doesn’t quite sit right with me.
I read a comment on a blog recently that caught my attention and perhaps summed up what I was thinking but hadn’t dared to even think, let alone, express. It said:
“… I just find the whole earthquake terribly cruel,
depressing, crushing, and awful, and nothing
to be kia kaha about” (1.)
I accept the phrase kia kaha in the manner in which I think it is meant, but when people have lost lives, limbs, homes, possessions, businesses… I’m not convinced that being strong is always the appropriate response.
Don’t get me wrong, being strong was pretty much the only option for so many people in the days immediately following. My own experience was that I had no choice than to be strong as I turned my attention to helping my elderly parents deal with the losses they had encountered. Neither of them were thinking straight, yet there were many things that simply had to be done. They had left their home with nothing, so had no clothes, no money, not even any identification. There was help available for them fairly quickly but it involved dealing with bureaucracy. Yes, even in a disaster someone is going to want forms filled in.
So I had no time to do anything but be strong. There simply wasn’t any other choice. But while being strong was appropriate in the early days, there came a time when it was necessary for me to feel the emotion that I had switched off and buried. It was buried so well I hardly knew it existed. It was only in rare moments with just my brother that I was even able to feel the stress that was building.
Six days later I was fortunate to get half an hour of my weekly appointment with my psychotherapist. It didn’t matter that I was sitting in a field on my brother’s farm talking to my therapist by phone. My friend Plonker was alone in being able to listen in. It wasn’t the usual environment but the chance to talk about how I was feeling made a huge difference to me. I didn’t have to be strong right then.
I worked out at that point where I needed to be strong, and where it was safe to have the feelings that were bubbling over. That made an enormous difference to me, because I knew that there was space for me.
What concerns me is that not everyone has that space, and for many the term kia kaha is the only words they’ve heard. A friend of mine (a man of about 60) told me some months later that he had been diagnosed with depression following the earthquakes and had come to accept that he didn’t have to be strong. For the first time in his life he saw that it was okay to be sad, it was okay to be weak. Having realised that, and with the help of medication and counselling he was starting to recover, but understanding that he didn’t have to be the stoic one in his family was the break through.
Today I came across a blog post saying a similar thing. I’m not exactly sure how I came across it. I guess it was something I fell upon but was exactly what I needed to read. It fits perfectly with what I am saying, although I admit that the post is addressed to men. Carlos Andrés Gómez says in his blog:
” …I was fifteen when I heard about my closest childhood friend being killed in a car accident, and I will never forget this tremendous burden I felt to “stay strong” and “tough my way through it.” I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was hurting. I didn’t want to ask for help. I accepted it as a given that I would bottle up all of my emotions and deal with them alone. I took great pride (at the time) in the fact that I excused myself from the table to cry alone in the bathroom after my father told me the news. I never shed one tear in front of my sister and dad, and it somehow felt like undeniable proof that I was finally ready to be a man. I quietly celebrated that moment of shutting myself down emotionally, as though it were an accomplishment. I wore it like a badge of honor that I could conceal the hurricane of emotions in my chest…”
Whether man or woman I think there are times when shutting down probably seems like the best course of action. It’s what I did in the immediate days after that quake because there was simply too much else that needed to be done. And while I welcome anyone greeting me with kia kaha I’m not sure that it is the phrase I need to hear now. Now I need to hear that I don’t need to be strong. Even if it is only me that gives me that permission, I need to know that it is okay to be as I am.
This doesn’t just apply to the aftermath of natural disasters. It applies in day to day life. I spend a lot of my time concerned with the well-being of other people, and have recently attached a note to my computer screen. It says “sometimes you have to do what’s best for you and your life, not what’s best for everyone else“. For me, this is the message I need. I don’t always need to be strong for others. Sometimes it is okay to simply look after me.
PS. If I have offended anyone in my interpretation of the term kia kaha, I apologise. My intention has not been to criticise the use of the term (which is one I use and appreciate), but to explore the use of it.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are
strong at the broken places.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
- Kia Kaha Christchurch (pundit.co.nz)
- The Tale Of Plonker The Pig (infinitesadnessorhope.wordpress.com)
- Men & Grief: Staring Down the Eye of the Storm (higherunlearning.com)