The Grief Journey

Rowan aged 19

I sometimes think that Row was put on this earth to disperse happiness and make people feel better about themselves. He lived his life to the fullest without wasting a minute. If someone had of said to him “Row, you’ve only got 19 years so make the most of it” he wouldn’t have been able to squeeze anything else in even if he tried.

Row was born on the 9th of October 2000. Our Millennium baby. Two years and one day after his older brother Jordan, and 4 years before his youngest brother Caiden. He also has two other older siblings, Steven and Hannah.

Row loves his family and his friends. Nothing was more important to him. His relationship with his brothers and his Grandmother was very special and he was in a loving relationship with a beautiful partner, Tara. He was an amazing son, brother, Grandson, boyfriend and friend.

He also loved athletics and water polo. He was determined to be the best athlete he could be. For every training there was a goal and determination to get better, fitter, faster while at the same time he would be getting maximum enjoyment out of being with his mates.

Row was a supreme athlete at the very start of what was going to be a wonderful adult life. He had already travelled to Europe and Australia many times to represent the NZ Youth, Junior and Senior Men’s water polo teams. In August 2019 he played for the NZ Senior Men in Korea and in December 2019 the Youth Men in Kuwait.

January 2020

On the evening of the 23rd of January 2020 Row went off to training at the Millennium Institute of Sport like any other day. He was planning to do his own swim fitness training before doing a North Harbour Men’s water polo training back to back. This was common for him and he was certainly fit enough to cope.

Both his brothers were at home as was his girlfriend who had recently moved in with us. We were preparing a meal when I got a phone call from one of the North Harbour Senior Women. I was told “Something has happened to Row and they are working on him beside the pool”. I remember asking if someone had called an Ambulance and was assured that they had.

We rushed to the pool, Row’s Dad driving and Row’s girlfriend and I panicking. When we got to the pool, we ran up the back steps and into the pool complex. I recall the pool was very still and there was no noise. All of the North Harbour Senior Men and Women were out of the water and standing by the pool. I looked down the pool and could see Ambulance staff working on Row as he lay on the pool deck.

I ran to him and could see straight away that it was bad. I couldn’t go to him as he was surrounded by Paramedics and hooked up to machines.

After what seemed like an eternity, one of the Senior Paramedics approached me, Stan and Tara and told us they could not do anything more to try and save him. They unhooked everything and Row was left lying beside the pool. Finally, we could go to him and hold him. The pain was indescribable.

We got Jordan to bring Caiden to the pool and we got Row’s Grandmother advised and brought to the pool by Police.

We got to sit with Row for a few hours feeling the warmth leave his beautiful body and all of us shattering inside. Our own pain made even worse by knowing how much pain our other children, Row’s Grandmother and Row’s friends were in.

We later found out that Row had been swim training by himself in a lane when one of the lifeguards had noticed he was on the bottom of the pool. Row was pulled out of the pool and three of his North Harbour team mates began doing CPR while someone else ran for the defibrillator and called 111.

Row’s cause of death was determined as being heart failure but the reason for the failure was not able to be determined. Cardiologists have said it was as if there was an electrical malfunction and the heart just stopped beating. In 2019 Row had undertaken two extensive fitness tests, including cardiac health assessments. Nothing concerning had shown up and it remains a mystery.

How to carry on

You don’t get over it, but you have to learn to live with it. You know there will never be true joy again and you feel trapped in a horrific reality that you have zero control over. How is it possible to cry so much? How can he not still be here? I worry that Row will be forgotten by others and I can’t stand the fact that life has to go on without him.

You lean on your family, your friends, Row’s friends and your colleagues. The support that wrapped around us was amazing and humbling. Close family, who had lost their son (Row’s cousin) a few months earlier in a car accident, knew exactly how to help.

About 4 months after Row died, I received an email from another grieving Mum. It was a tentative reach out and a very respectfully written email. The fact that this Mum, who had also lost her beautiful boy, wanted to help us was incredible to me. She explained who the Healing Hearts Group were and described the support that was there if we wanted it. We did want it as we were drowning. We found unconditional support offered for Mums, Dads and siblings. There is no pressure and there is complete understanding of the rollercoaster that is grief. The bond between us parents is there to stay. To be able to talk (and cry) openly with other parents who fully get where you are coming from is extremely valuable.

Row’s legacy is live your life to the fullest and be the best person you can be. We now have an annual under 12 water polo tournament in his name that raises thousands of dollars for the Heart Foundation every year. The Millennium pool has become known as Row’s pool complete with a brand-new score board with his name across the top. There is also a Tier Two Senior Men’s North Harbour team called the ‘RJB Legacy Team’ that both of his brothers play in.

Row was pure magic and we miss him so much.