This week we learned of the death of Steve Irwin, the Australian known around the world as “The Crocodile Hunter.” As I write this, Australian news shows are flooded with images of people milling around the front gates of the Australia Zoo, leaving floral tributes to this man who influenced many people during his short life.
Love him or hate him, the death of Steve Irwin has certainly had an impact both in Australia and overseas. Children in Australian schools are being offered counseling to assist them as they come to terms with the death of a man who many little ones regarded as a hero of both crocodiles and the environment.
So what happens when a famous person dies and why does it often precipitate such an outpouring of public grief? This question is especially interesting when you consider that most of the people who are demonstrating signs of shock and grief have never personally met the person concerned.
Just like when Princess Diana died, it is clear that the media plays a huge role in how we perceive the world. Very few of the tens of thousands of mourners who hovered around Princess Diana’s home in the days following her death would ever have met Diana herself. Again, few people who today mourn Steve Irwin would have shaken his hand. And yet, we have the classic signs of grief.
When a person who is in the public sphere suddenly dies, it has an effect on us even though we know little of the private person. And when that person appears regularly on our TV screens they invariably become a part of our lives. We invite them into our living rooms and we get used to them “being there” at a particular time each week.
When we suddenly hear that they have died, we are shaken because something intangible, yet very familiar, has been taken away from us. We are shocked because we felt that we knew them. We are shocked because they are familiar to us, often more familiar than our neighbors whose names we may not even know. And we are shocked because our safe, routine world has been rocked.
Although under these circumstances, the grief process is not as severe as one involving a close friend or family member, nor does it last so long, the process is nevertheless the same. Disbelief, denial, sadness, in some cases such as Diana’s death, anger, and then finally resignation.
The death of Steve Irwin and other public figures serves as a reminder of the power of the media in influencing our lives and how we see the world and its inhabitants.