A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

Tarneen Onus-Williams – Grief is Weird

After a trip to Wiradjuri country and a chat with Aunty Pat Doolan, Tarneen considers their relationship to grief.

Tarneen Onus Williams is a Yigar Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta person. Tarneen is a community organiser for Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and is passionate about prison abolition and the power of young Aboriginal people. They are a writer and have been published in IndigenousX, The Saturday Paper, NITV and RightNow. They currently work at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.


Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories.

In November 2019, Nayuka Gorrie guest-curated a Queerstories event at the Melba Spiegeltent, hosting it just four days before giving birth to their beautiful twins.

Nayuka is a Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta writer who’s been published widely. They were a Wheeler Centre Next Chapter recipient in 2018, and they’ve written for TV including Black Comedy, Get Krackin! and The Heights.


My god, hello. My name’s Nayuka Gorrie, I curated tonight. Tonight’s an all-Black line-up and I’m really excited to be able to do this so thank you all for coming.

So next up, we have Tarneen Onus-Williams. Tarneen is a Yigar Gunditjmara, Bindal, Yorta Yorta, Torres Strait Islander person and a member of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. They’re a writer and currently work at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, working and supporting incarcerated and criminalised Black women. Let’s give it up for Tarneen.


So just recently, I was in Dubbo on Wiradjuri country, and I met an aunty, her name’s Aunty Pat Doolan. She’s a proud Wiradjuri women and she was a grief counsellor before she retired, which was five years ago.

I met her at a lecture I was doing at the university. She mentioned at the lecture that she would show me around the next day and I thought I was flying out early, but it turned out I didn’t so I did like the country thing and I contacted somebody who knew her and got her house phone number and called her the next morning. She asked me to meet her at a café, Lavish café in the mall outside of Woolworths.

She told me about Dubbo, and the community and about God, and although I’m no longer religious, I felt safe with her. She reminded me of my grandmother, Jainey Williams, who passed away in December 2012. I really miss her all of the time. Every time I look at a photo of her on my bedside table.

Beside this, when I was sitting there with Aunty Pat, she had lots of people coming up to her and saying hello. They were like older people, I think people even older than her, saying ‘hey Aunty Pat!’ This reminded me of hanging out with my nan again and while we hung out I kept holding back tears. And through the warm day in Dubbo, she showed me her hangout spots where she’d go and read, and I met her daughter and her grandkids, and she talked to me about her love for mob and all the incredible work she’s doing in her life. She dropped me off at the airport and we sat together at the glass table, Aunty Pat having a coffee and me eating a Cherry Ripe. Eventually my plane got called, and before I boarded, Aunty Pat’s warm soft hands grabbed mine, she looked, it felt like she looked into my spirit, but she looked into my eyes and said something like, ‘Look after yourself, love yourself, you hold a lot of grief. And all our mob hold a lot of grief but you can do it.’ And since meeting Aunty Pat, I haven’t stopped thinking about grief and how it’s transformed for me.

As I was writing this, I was sitting in my bedroom, and I was looking up at the mantlepiece and I thought of my grief. And I thought, my grief is like the ornaments upon this mantlepiece. There’s hair products, plants, matches, Polaroid pictures, my boyfriend’s T, a coolamon from Djab Wurrung country. And I add flowers into the coolamon and the flowers are held by a small basket that I wove of Punyup grass, that’s what we say down home in Gunditjmara Country, and I weaved at protest against the forced closures in 2015. This is a place of storage, like my body feels like a storage for grief.

I’m only 26 and I’m hoarding my grief like native title papers. And for any blak people in the room, they’re everywhere. With every death of a family member, young people taking their lives, blak deaths in custody, people going to prison, childhood friends back home being murdered, people with addiction and poor mental health, grieving the person you were before a violent relationship and people I love having their bodies harmed in ways I don’t ever want to hear ever again, this grief is all around me and my community. And for the record, I want to state, I really like processes. I really like, you know, 1, 2, 3, step, Ciara, you know? But with Aunty Pat’s prompt, I’m trying to work through the process to process my grief – fuck I really sound like a weirdo when I say that – but it’s true.

It really reminded me of this time when I saw my therapist when I was 22, and she told me I had PTSD. I was like okay, and I asked her, ‘How long does it last and what can I do to fix it?’ I honestly thought there’s just something, but there’s not. I really wanted the easy answer, I wanted the steps to go through and get over it, but with PTSD it doesn’t work like that as I found out, but neither does grief. But there are seven stages with grief so that gives me something, so:

  1. shock & denial
  2. pain & guilt
  3. anger & bargaining
  4. ‘depression’, reflection, loneliness
  5. the upward turn
  6. reconstruction & working through
  7. acceptance & hope


On the description for these on the website, it said: ‘Once again, it is important to interpret the stages loosely, and expect much individual variation. There is no neat progression from one stage to the next. In reality, it’s more just looping back, or stages can hit at the same time, or occur out of order. So why bother with stage models anyway? Because they’re a very good general guide of what to expect.’

Fuck me. Like, are you serious? So I’m really pissed now that, you know, grief isn’t linear, it’s up and down, it goes back and forth. And I’m pissed that being blak, this grief is constant. I really wanted something straightforward, you know, like antibiotics four times a day, three hours before food, four hours after food, even though I’m really fucking shit at that too, but you know. It’s something. It’s a guide. It’s instructions.

But you get my point so I wondered which way to apply this grief, which stages, and I thought, should I collate them all, which I thought is really dramatic but you know I’m blak and I’m gay, so it’s kind of suited. But seriously, I started to think about grief and the moments that I’ve shared, the darkest moments of, and it’s been my family and my community. And though grief is horrendous, there are elements of it that bring us together.

And I’ve thought of a few joyous moments where you aren’t usually allowed to have those happy moments, but I think that as blakfellas we always do.

One of them was, I brought these like Skechers – which I’m wearing tonight, I love my Skechers – but these ones were like grey, sparkly, strap-over heels, what older women wear, and my cousins, I was wearing them every day because my Achilles was really bad. I was wearing them to the hospital to go see my grandfather while he was dying. This was in 2015. And my cousins teased me about it the whole time. And you know, sometimes now, they bring it up, and it was four years ago, they still tease me about my Skechers and I’m like fuck this I love my Skechers.

There was another time, around the same time, when me and Nayuka went to 7-Eleven. It was when my grandfather was dying and we were walking down the alleyway in Richmond and these white women heard us. And they were drunk, pissing in the alleyway, and they wanted to fight us. And so, we were just like running through, running away from them, and we were just like, this is so funny. And like, the shoes were so good to run in as well. [audience laughs] Thank god for Skechers.

Another funny moment was during my uncle’s funeral last year – Nayuka’s father, Nunkeri’s father – you know, we’re a religious family, and the pastor’s face when Gangsta’s Paradise came on by Tupac, he had his face in his hands, and I was just like laughing, like this is so inappropriate but his ears are burning right now, he really wants god now.

More joyous moments were crying in the kitchen with Nunkeri at 10 o’clock in the morning after a big night out, and another one was sipping UDLs in the December after my grandma’s funeral. My uncle, he lives in Ballina, and we were all sitting out the front in his front yard and we were drinking, we were crying, we all had our island shirts on coz we’re Torres Strait Islander as well, and my uncle like lots of Murris, they get the guitar out and everyone starts sitting around singing. That’s another joyous moment where there’s not supposed to be joy.

Another one is, after something really bad happening like someone passing away, it’s going into VAHS, the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, going in there and getting a hug from Aboriginal women. Like that’s massive and those are the joyous moments when community come together.

It’s me and Meriki organising really fucked rallies, like not fucked but organising for shitty things but I always love our conversations after. We’ll be on the phone for like three hours, laughing or not talking at all, and that’s a really joyous moment. You know when you have that person you can call up but you’re not really talking, you’re just there? It’s that support and I really love that.

Another one was when me and Jermaine were really cooked one night at a house party in Abbotsford and I was like, oh my god Jermaine, I booked tickets to the NT, you should totally come. And it was just after his nan had passed away and I was like, you know what, fuck this, it’s like 3 o’clock in the morning, we’re cooked, and I was like, I’m booking you tickets right now! So I booked us tickets to the NT and we had the best holiday, we were twerking on rocks and all this shit, it was really fun.

Another one which was really bittersweet, it was me and my mum, we were at her brother’s funeral, and we had to leave early to go to the hospital because my sister was in labour with my nephew. And we had to go there to go welcome my nephew, he’s one now, he just turned one last week, so that was another joyous moment where everything was so sad but we were just like happy and laughing and crying, all of these emotions. I’m just really happy that my mum has a new grandchild and I have a new nephew.

But these moments I’ve spoken about tonight have broken me again and again. And I’m sure this will continue for the rest of my life. But I think it’s about – who you’ve got on the journey is what matters. It’s about being around your family, and this includes your chosen family. It’s giving help when you can, and swallowing your pride and accepting the help and love you deserve in your darkest moments even though you don’t give a fuck about yourself.

It’s about being honest with your feelings and sharing them with others to build trust, care and love like community taught us. We need to carry on that legacy for caring for each other as blackfullas do. But one thing I love about being blak is laughing and I thinking of what Aunty Audrey said just a couple of weeks ago, she said ‘You can choose be miserable, or you can choose to laugh’, so I choose to laugh. Thank you.


Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast, rate and review it, and follow Queerstories on Facebook for updates.



Subscribe to Queerstories


Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.