Wise heads needed in our time of grief

Politics is usually expressed as difference and, therefore, division.

Gordon and I write opposite each other because we have different and often conflicting views on the same issues or on the way our society is organised.

But my heart's not in it this week. This isn't a time for difference and division. It's a week for coming together.

We owe it to Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye, Felipe De Melo and Bryce Jourdain.

Wednesday's tragedy on Paritutu rock has been a shock to two local families, to a third in Brazil, to a whole school community and to everyone in New Plymouth.

Most of us won't know the men. But we feel the loss of them.

We feel it because this was young life. Even Mr Jourdain was barely halfway through his. For the students, life - real life - of choices, of discovery, of achievement, of excitement, of disappointment, of challenges, of responsibility, had barely started. The bigness of life was ahead of them.

We feel the loss because they were at that most innocent of places - school. This was a school exercise gone tragically wrong.

In New Plymouth we also feel strongly about this because it happened at Paritutu. The big, rugged rock that even today really defines this city. The monolith undiminished by the power station chimney, man's feeble and failed attempt to dominate nature's work. The mighty sentinel that casts its authority from Oakura to Waiwhakaiho. The ship's prow repelling every turbulent Tasman wave that tries to smash its way into our settlement. There is Paritutu. Unmoved. Unbowed. Now a host to tragedy, sadness and grief.

There is a group of young people who were there at the time, on the side of the rock, who will be thinking 'that could have been me'. And because they are young, and only starting to discover what life can throw at them, their feelings of trauma and loss, and the feelings of their young classmates and friends, will be intense.

All of Spotswood College and Topec will be in our thoughts.

This week, compassion and support are vital. And because this is New Plymouth and Taranaki, it will be there in spades.

What happens next will also be important. Sadness and grief have a habit of giving way to anger. Not just because good has been lost, but because so far the loss is hard to explain.

Our community leaders have an important role to play. They must reflect community feeling and be our voice. But they must lead. Not to soothing noises with bland assurances. Not to idle speculation and harmful recrimination. But to understanding.

There are questions. Something went wrong. So what was it? Could things have been done differently? Were the right precautions taken?

It is tempting to say 'they should not have been there'. But we want our young, those who are fit and able, to be tested and to be pushed to their limits. We want them to learn about risk and danger, and not to fear it but to deal with it effectively.

We grow when we are challenged and not defeated by the challenge.

But we don't expect life and limb to be put at risk. Not on a school trip.

How will we deal with these questions? In other places where there has been tragedy in public, there has been a public inquiry. Pike River is an example. A public investigation makes personal loss public, but helps the community to understand.

I hope we can get the balance of compassion, support, reconciliation, and, ultimately, understanding in good measure. These three men deserve nothing less.

Taranaki Daily News