How mum of 5 with terminal cancer inspired new book about helping kids process grief

Maree Fitzgerald lost her mum to bowel cancer when she was just 2 years old. Photo / Supplied

When Maree Fitzgerald was just 2 years old, she wandered around the house one day looking for her mum Daphne, but she was nowhere to be seen.

For days the tot scurried from room to room in search of the bubbly mother of two, before eventually giving up when she realised she wasn’t there.

Years later, having not known where her mum went, Maree learnt she had died from bowel cancer, leaving behind two little girls and their devoted father Leo, whose heartbreak meant he never spoke about her passing. While Maree’s young memories of Daphne eventually faded, her confusion and grief didn’t.

By the time her hardworking father died of a heart attack at the dining table, while the then-16-year-old watched on helplessly, Maree was so afraid of loss that she shut her emotions off completely. It took years of running from her feelings, numbing herself with alcohol, failed relationships, and burning herself out for Maree to finally speak about her loss with a counsellor in her late 20s.

Now, the Kapiti Coast woman is helping Kiwi kids better understand and process grief. Earlier this year, she jumped on board as a sponsor for an in-school book initiative run by Wellington author Cloe Willetts, which will see a copy of a children’s book about grief donated to every primary school in Aotearoa.

Thea and the Dizzy Waggle is a rhyming picture book that helps children navigate loss and grief through the concept of nature, using a pōhutukawa tree and tūī bird named Thea, who passes away. Throughout the story, a character called a Dizzy Waggle works through the loss of her dear friend, learning tools and finding comfort.

“People are much more open these days and understand that you actually need to deal with the feelings around death,” says Maree, who reached out to journalist Cloe after seeing an interview about her book on TV3’s The Project.

“I recall my grandfather once saying I had to be quiet because Mum wasn’t well. As I grew up, I thought I hadn’t been quiet enough, and that’s why Mum was gone. It’s how a child’s perception works, and it stuck with me for a long time.”

While Maree says there was tragedy in her childhood, it was also a happy one growing up on a farm, which her father ran with the support of his late wife’s parents, who moved in to help raise the kids.

A new children's book by Cloe Willetts tackles the tough subject of grief and loss. Photo / Supplied
A new children’s book by Cloe Willetts tackles the tough subject of grief and loss. Photo / Supplied

“I was shell shocked when Dad died too and just couldn’t believe it,” Maree recalls. “I adored him, he was such a good man, and I just threw myself into studying and then went overseas for a bit. I numbed a lot with alcohol, before returning and numbing with my job.”

Maree worked as an accountant before getting into IT and moving to Wellington at 30. She co-launched her own company, which sold and implemented multi-million-dollar software to large businesses. By the time she sold out of the business eight years ago, it had 280 staff across New Zealand and Australia, but Maree had worked herself to the ground.

“I was quite burnt out from working long hours and six to seven days a week. I also didn’t really let anyone close to me, so it was a bit lonely,” admits Maree, who had a couple of romantic relationships that lasted a few years. “I often wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d been able to process my parents’ deaths and grieve properly.”

When Maree read Thea and the Dizzy Waggle, she couldn’t put it down. She was also touched by the back story behind the book, which was inspired by Kapiti Coast woman Emma Blundell, a mum of three and stepmother of two who had terminal breast cancer.

In January, when Cloe interviewed Emma about a fundraiser she was running for her nephew, who has Muscular Dystrophy, she mentioned she wished there were more books about grief for children. Having already purchased the writer’s first book The Dizzy Waggle Who Lit the Dark, about big feelings and empathy, for her young stepdaughter Jessa, Emma asked Cloe if she’d write another one.

“Jessa loved the first Dizzy Waggle book and characters, so I agreed I’d write one about losing a loved one, since Emma was adamant that she wanted to commission my illustrator,” laughs mum of one Cloe. “Before our interview, I chatted with her for an hour about her mindset around being terminal, and what death meant to her. She was at peace about passing and wasn’t afraid. I wrote the story that night so she could see it.”

Maree Fitzgerald with her great-niece Molly. Photo / Supplied
Maree Fitzgerald with her great-niece Molly. Photo / Supplied

Emma loved it and so did her family, who asked to read it at her funeral after she sadly passed away three days later. Within a month, Levin-based illustrator Fabienne Joni Sopacua had completed the pictures and the book was finding its way into bookshelves around the country.

“It has been a special collaboration between women who really care about helping our children with their emotions and mental wellness. The fact Emma wanted to do this just days from dying says so much about her beautiful character,” Cloe says. “When Maree offered to sponsor getting the book in schools, which was one of my goals, I cried! She’s a very private person and to put herself out there like this shows how much the project means to her too.”

While the cost of printing has been covered, with the books ready to be sent out, they now require funding to cover the costs and time associated with getting the books into the 1500-plus schools.

“There’s an opportunity for a courier company or business to get involved and help with the next step, which is getting them distributed,” Maree says. “Hopefully there’s someone like me who straight away thinks, I need to do something to get behind this.”

For Maree, who is now retired and enjoys spending her days volunteering for charities, doing yoga, and travelling, her hope is the book will help kids understand some of the “funny feelings” they’ll go through after losing someone.

“I love how the book encourages readers to look for loved ones in pōhutukawa trees, or in the form of a tūī, which are special to New Zealanders,” she smiles. “I can see a little kid who has lost a parent not wanting to put the book down. I even took it to bed with me a couple of times! It’s one I really wish I’d had as a child.”

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