After getting home from work yesterday evening, I turned on the telly for my usual bout of post-work laziness and encountered the tail end of the Steve Irwin memorial service
at Australia Zoo. To be honest, after watching a parade of quintessentially "aussie" celebrities strut their stuff, I had to turn it off as our Great and Noble Leader took the microphone to wax lyrical about the Australian-ness of the Crocodile Hunter.
It was tragic. Not because of the forced sentiment of the performers, but because it seemed to reinforce Irwin's cult of celebrity, and take from the family the intensely personal experience of the death of a loved one.
Nowhere was this more evident than the speech of Bindi Irwin, Steve's eight year-old daughter.
I speak from experience as someone who has been on the wrong end of a parent's death. Bindi's speech
, while remarkable for it's apparent composure, was a performance for an international television audience. It was not the personal message of a daughter who had just tragically lost her father, but a set piece, performed flawlessly, with all the self-awareness such coverage brings with it. As a consequence, I found it quite unsettling.
Everyone deals with grief in a different way. Some people scream and cry until they have nothing left but sleep. Others stay quiet, almost physically detached from the events occurring around them. But no matter what the response, the formal, ritualised condolences from those outside the family circle are almost always innappropriate.
I found one of the most obvious examples of this is being told how brave you are. It's a cliche that comes quickly and easily to mind - "you're being so brave" - but someone who has just experienced the death of a loved one is not being "brave", they are just going on as best they can. The world either falls apart completely, or you continue to put one foot in front of the other. There is nothing "brave" in this response - there just simply isn't another option.
Another assumption is that everything else falls away, that those affected can think of nothing but the loved one lost and that all thought of other matters is almost sacrilegious. But that's not how it works at all. You continue to function as you always have. You think the same thoughts as you did last week. You have the same conceipts, vanities, neuroses, it's just that everything is enhanced by the lead weight in your stomach and the exhaustion of constant thought. In effect, nothing has changed.
I don't know who decided Bindi Irwin should speak at her father's memorial service, it may even have been Bindi herself, but I question the wisdom of the decision. Despite everything else that was going on, Bindi was clearly intensely aware of what it was she was doing. I suspect the thought of speaking to an audience of several million people around the world would have been her main preoccupation for the whole of yesterday if not several days before. The same would go for anyone placed in a similar position. But the result was a little girl intent on performing her best to a huge audience - the only use to tug on the heart strings of those watching from a distance.
It is difficult to suggest to anyone how they should go about grieving, but I feel that Bindi was used in a way that did not contribute to her family, or herself, but rather fed the entertainment quotient of "the slick production" of yesterday's memorial service. The media today is praising her as a "brave little girl", feeding the condolence cliche machine, but I don't see bravery, I see an eight year-old tragically severed from her Dad not having the opportunity to sit with her family and experience collective grief, but being placed, literally, on a pedestal and expected to perform.
The family will continue to put one foot in front of the other as the attention slips away, they'll learn how to deal with an entirely new set of relationships as the media packs up and goes home. Over the next few weeks they will come to grips with the reality of their situation and slowly return to a normal, but entirely different life.
Bindi Irwin's performance was truly impressive, but only as a performance. I just wish she'd been given the chance to experience her Dad's death in the arms of her family instead of on an isolated stage in front of millions of strangers.