On grief

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Floral tributes mount up at Martin Place.

Australia, it seems, is being buffeted by tragedy and grief. First we had the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes. It deeply affected not only his family and cricketing fraternity, but also the whole nation and beyond that, sports people from other codes in other countries. It was a quite extraordinary reaction and, to be honest, it didn’t sit well with me.

And now we have the Sydney siege, in which two innocent people lost their lives as a result of the actions of a delusional and narcissistic idiot. In each case, the loss of these individuals has been played out and framed very publicly, fueled by hashtags, politicians and wall-to-wall media coverage. Countless thousands are grieving for people they never knew. Each event exerts a powerful gravitational pull.

It’s not the first time this has happened in recent times. The sea of flowers around the Lindt cafe in Martin Place, Sydney (above), is reminiscent of the tsunami of bouquets that engulfed the entrance to Kensington Palace after Diana Spencer died in a car crash. That convulsion of grief encircled the globe and, when it subsided, left people like me wondering what on earth had come over them. And that was well before social media were available to pour more petrol on the flames of sorrow.

I’m not a psychologist – I can’t explain this phenomenon, but it seems selective to say the least. The Stuff website (I only go there for the quizzes) shows just how capricious we can be. Today, we woke up to the ghastly news of the Taleban massacre of 141 school children and their teachers in Pakistan. This was orders of magnitude worse than what’s happened in Australia, but by early afternoon the tragic story had all but disappeared from the Stuff news page, subsumed by stories such as “Katy Perry’s opening act pulls out” (the horror!) and “A giant gourd lands in Auckland” (I’m not making this up). We should really take a long hard look at ourselves.

All of this has got me thinking about grieving in the wake of tragedy and how, in the space of little more than a generation, we’ve changed. I have direct experience of this.

Dawn Matthews at her work as a seed pathologist for MAF.
Dawn Matthews at her work as a seed pathologist for MAF.

I always get a little sad at this time of year. It’s now just a tick over 35 years since my mother’s twin sister, Dawn Matthews, died aged 60 on Mount Erebus along with 256 others who were on the sightseeing flight TE901. Dawn was single and we were her closest family. Needless to say it was a devastating time and the days and weeks that followed were difficult for all of us, not least my mother. Dawn was the last surviving member of the family she grew up in. In a rather cruel coincidence, her only other sibling had also died on a mountain, 42 years earlier – Mount Taranaki/Egmont in that case. (For the record, Erebus is New Zealand’s greatest ever disaster in terms of loss of life, not counting epidemics or war.)

Compared with today’s public grieving, what happened in 1979 was a remarkably private and low-key affair. Perhaps there were so many bereaved families (just over 200 of those on board were New Zealanders), the news media couldn’t even start to cope with the stories of so many individuals. I don’t recall thinking this was anything unusual at the time. At my aunt’s memorial service in Palmerston North, and later at her funeral in Auckland after her body was returned, we were untroubled by reporters or sight-seers. Today I’ve been through some archives and been intrigued by the restrained but poignant news coverage in the immediate aftermath of Erebus. This partly reflects how hard it was to cover such a tragedy in such a remote and dangerous place given the technology of the day, but it also reflects attitudes to loss and grief in the 1970s. Reporters kept a respectful distance. How we felt did not need to be mediated through Twitter or Seven Sharp.

Morning Report the day following the Erebus crash is revealing. About the most intemperate reportage concerned  a “night of tension” being transformed into a “night of horror”. After that, we were told of the “moment of shock” and how relatives waiting at the airport were “calm and collected”, with “no emotional scenes or weeping”. Christchurch airport, where the returning flight was due to land and refuel on its way back to Auckland was a scene of “quiet efficiency behind closed doors”, punctuated by “chattering telexes”.

A piece of the fuselage from the Air New Zealand DC-10 on Mount Erebus
A piece of the fuselage from the Air New Zealand DC-10 on Mount Erebus

Amazingly, the coverage on this first morning dried up after about 20 minutes, and Morning Report went on to discuss the rest of the day’s news, including a report on Blair Peach’s death in London, the situation in Rhodesia (lots of deaths) and an inquiry into the Abbotsford landslip (no deaths). There wasn’t much information to go on in the first 24 hours and, rather than padding the bulletins with endless speculation and repetition, Morning Report just got on with it until there was more to be told. (Compare that with the wall-to-wall coverage on all media following 9/11.)

On Checkpoint later that day, the focus was on the challenging conditions at the crash site, the sequence of events, minor speculation about causes for losing radio contact (solar flares) and earlier criticism about scenic flights to Antarctica. A man who had been a commentator on previous flights was interviewed and cheerily confirmed he’d be happy to do another one. There was also talk of jurisdiction over the crash site, logistics and the application of the newly minted ACC legislation to this unique situation. All very Checkpoint.

Also providing coverage on the spot was Radio New Zealand’s redoubtable John Blumsky, one of only two media people allowed to Antarctica in the initial phase. He later received an award for his coverage of the recovery operation on Mount Erebus, something he achieved with great professionalism in difficult conditions. The New Zealand Police initially refused permission for any filming of the crash site, only grudgingly allowing long-distance shots from the air, to be vetted by the Police in New Zealand before being made available for broadcast. Blumsky’s reports were second-hand, gleaned from interviews with those going to the crash site.

Remarkably absent from this early radio coverage were two elements that absolutely dominate coverage of contemporary tragedies: politicians and the bereaved. Think Christchurch earthquakes, Pike River or the Fox Glacier air crash. The Prime Minister was all over these events and keen to show leadership and compassion. He thoughtfully wore a Crusaders rugby jersey when interviewed in Christchurch following the first earthquake. The Prime Minister in 1979, Robert Muldoon, had a monstrous ego, but even he understood that it was better to leave the initial narrative to those who actually knew what was going on (unlike Key, who fluffed an early estimate of the death toll in Christchurch). Muldoon was barely mentioned in the first Morning Report bulletin and wasn’t interviewed.

Likewise with the bereaved. The faces of those who lost family members in recent disasters – especially those at Pike River – are well known throughout New Zealand households, as their sorrow and anger are painstakingly and repeatedly documented. When it came to dealing with victims’ families in 1979, the New Zealand Herald showed a lighter touch. In an article headed “Tears and incense”, the paper was referring to the perfumed incense burned by Japanese mourners, not anger. It begins:

“Tears welled in they eyes of a young man supporting his widowed mother at a memorial service held in Auckland yesterday for the victims of last week’s DC-10 disaster.

“His younger sister was distraught; his brother, barely school age, could not have understood. But the young man, biting his lip, stood firm.

“Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows of St-Matthews-in-the City, picking out others in the 700-strong gathering who had painful links with this tragedy…the elderly lady giving her all to a hymn, makeup unashamedly streaked; the young woman who clutched a clergyman as she was shown to a seat – the grief of a nation found expression in that service.”

The article probably sounds quaint to younger ears but just reading it brings tears to my eyes.

So too did a Listener editorial immediately before Christmas 1979, just two or three weeks after the disaster. At Christmas, it gently reminded us, we should spare a thought for the pain of those who had lost loved ones on flight TE901. Talk about understatement – yet it still moves me.

So do we handle these types of events better or worse than we did 35 years ago? I don’t know. But I don’t need to be told how I should feel – about my own loss or that of someone in another country, not of my acquaintance. I felt intensely sad when Dawn was killed and sometimes I still do. But that’s between her and me.

If you want to support people suffering unbearable pain, people you don’t know, think for a while about those families in Pakistan. If you’re quick you’ll find the story online – just under the one about the silly driver who put his canoe on his car the wrong way around.