Sam May was thousands of kilometres away from his homeland when he heard the news that his younger cousin Cassius Turvey had died.
- Indigenous communities across Australia are grieving Cassius Turvey’s death
- Educator says collective grief is playing out in classrooms and social media
- Psychologist says such tragedies can compound complex layers of grief
WARNING: This story features the names and images of deceased Aboriginal people, which have been used with the permission of their families.
He was taken to hospital with head injuries before suffering a seizure some days later.
Mr May — a Whadjuck-Ballardong Noongar man — recalled one of the final conversations with his cousin over the phone from a Perth hospital bed.
“He said: ‘I love you my big cuz,'” Mr May told the ABC.
Cassius died in hospital on October 23.
Mr May didn’t just lose his beloved cousin, but an irreplaceable link who connected generations of his family.
“My kids would call him uncle … with our kinship and our moiety system, first cousins are pretty much like brothers and sisters, because that’s how we are raised,” he said.
“He was born an uncle and a pop as well, and he was respected by the nephews and nieces who are older than him, just as any uncle. But, he never demanded that respect. He earned it.
“And he gave them respect tenfold in return.”
“The only thing I could find comfort in was holding my children because I remember holding Cassius as a baby,” he said.
“It just brought me back those cherished memories that I have of him.”
Now, Mr May is looking at the future in a different light, and has fears for his family.
“It’s not fair for my children growing up to be looking over their shoulders going home and it wasn’t fair for Cassius to be attacked like that.”
Mr May is organising one of the many vigils held across the country to remember Cassius.
‘It’s like a ripple effect’
Police allege a 21-year-old man got out of his car and attacked Cassius with a metal pole. Police have charged the man with murder and he is due back in court on November 9.
Indigenous educator Derek Nannup has found the incident difficult to talk about in his classrooms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
The Whadjuck-Noongar man said he took pride in teaching his students about their culture but found it challenging to guide them through the complex realities of the two worlds in which they walk.
“Every time I do run workshops, I’m finding myself having to talk about being safe in the streets.”
The widespread mourning after Cassius’s death was not bound by borders — Mr Nannup said he witnessed a collective grief playing out across social media platforms.
“I saw mob from north, south, east and west — all over the continent — posting about how they feel and it’s all anger and sadness,” he recalled.
“With our mob, if you hurt one you hurt all of us. It’s like a ripple effect.
“If something happens in one pocket of Australia, it trickles all the way through and everyone feels that pain.
“Our songlines connect us all up and I feel like pain brings us together as well, but it’s sad that’s the case.”
First Nations’ fear ‘based on real life’
Dr Tracy Westerman is an Indigenous psychologist with two decades of expertise on the impacts of race-related grief and trauma.
The Nyamal woman said tragedies such as the death of Cassius Turvey can intensify complex layers of trauma, and compound the grief of many First Nations people.
Adding to that the historical treatment of Indigenous Australians by authorities, she said, and Indigenous people were united in a shared struggle.
“The experience of Aboriginal people is not [one of] receiving justice for our children,” she said.
“The lack of justice for black victims of crime, including over 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody without conviction, means that the vulnerability is felt at a much greater and broader community level.”
Dr Westerman explained that, for Indigenous mob, there was a genuine fear for the next trauma.
“This fear is based on real life, rather than any created sense of fear or threat,” she said.
‘It can have a devastating effect’
Indigenous leaders have expressed outrage and concern about how authorities have reflected on the circumstances surrounding Cassius’s death.
Wangkamahdla barrister Avelina Tarrago — who works with families involved in coronial hearings — said this situation could be re-traumatising for many in the community.
She said the handling of tragedies such as this have the potential to further embed perceptions that “Indigenous people and our lives are not valued in the same way”.
“It can have a devastating effect.”
Dr Westerman agreed the language used by authorities “invalidates the pain felt” by First Nations people.
“I have seen this so often that authorities, in their desire to quell community distress, contribute to it by the language that is used,” she said.