In Mourning Still For a Fallen Star

By Janice Lynch Schuster
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 13, 2006

Imust have been 5 the spring my grandmother detoured on our drive to Massachusetts, stopping by a relative's New York home to watch Robert Kennedy's funeral, or perhaps the train procession that carried his body to Washington. The image that stays with me almost 40 years later is how sad my grandmother was, how solemn, as the grim adults gathered around a small black-and-white screen. How could television have made her so unhappy?

I remembered that moment recently as I sat before my computer monitor, reading about "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, killed by a stingray barb, and weeping as if he'd been a brother or a friend. In 1968, my grandmother had others there with her, sharing in her grief and anger. They must have talked about the assassination and exchanged stories, but then they returned to the routines of their own family lives.

Two months after Irwin's death, however, I am still chatting online with others -- strangers, though I know their names -- who were touched by his life and death. With the Internet's discussion boards, Web cams, video on demand, we can mourn indefinitely, easily and privately, in our cubicles and home offices.

Paradoxically, our collective mourning has become a solitary experience. I have a global electronic community of other mourners, from Brisbane and Bangladesh to Florida and Minnesota. On message forums, we think we've found kindred spirits, although with the anonymity of the Web, it is hard to know if that is true. No matter. You float a question on the ether -- I am fourteen and cannot stop crying for Steve. Is there anyone else out there? -- and receive dozens of sympathetic replies.

In the past 20 years or so, we've grown almost expert at showing our collective grief. For those of us touched by a celebrity death, whether it was Elvis Presley or Kurt Cobain or Steve Irwin, we watch their funerals or memorial services, we write songs about them, create online collages, pen poems. We e-mail their families and even send sympathy cards. But what does it mean, to weep for a life that we did not share?

Michael C. Kearl, a professor at Trinity University in Texas, has written about celebrity death in the online "Encyclopedia of Death and Dying." He suggests our grief may be triggered because the celebrity reflects who we are or want to be.

To me, the reason may simply be the search for meaning that follows any death -- meaning in the life lost, in your own life. In my case, Irwin reminded me of what a college professor once said: "To be happy in life, find your passion and pursue it passionately." Along the way, I've lost that. Irwin seemed to have such passion all of his life.

Other mourners appear to be on a similar journey. In thousands of online messages, people discuss how they have changed since Irwin's death: volunteering at a local animal hospital, rescuing a fill-in-the-blank (snake, lizard, worm, whatever). Others post original songs and poems to honor Irwin. Still others pay tribute on YouTube with video montages. Me? I got a dog.

Until Irwin's death, I did not participate in the public's mourning of celebrities. Nor had I been a real fan. I have felt guilty at spending my limited energies grieving for a man who lived full-tilt doing just what he wanted to do. Such a man is not a tragic figure, untimely though his death may be.

A few days after he died, I caught a repeat of "Confessions of the Crocodile Hunter" in which Irwin described his profound attachment for his late mother. "She was the most beautiful person on the face of the Earth," he said. My 4-year-old turned to me and said, "He's talking about you." In that exchange, Irwin went from being a television celebrity to being a person, a father, son, husband, friend.

Since then, I have cried while watching footage of Irwin describing his love for his wife and children. I have cried watching him swim with humpback whales. I have wondered how his wife must feel, to have lost her soul mate so early in the game. I've watched tributes on Animal Planet and even posted a few of my own on its memorial Web site. I've read the front pages of the Australian and kept up with the Courier-Mail, the Queensland daily paper.

I've been too embarrassed to mention this situation to family or friends. Instead, I've tried to explain it to myself. Surely there is an underlying cause for it. My husband, the same age as Irwin, survived a major health scare last spring; perhaps my grief is really for him. The birth mother of two of my six children died in a car crash when they were 3 and 4. Perhaps in Bindi and baby Bob I see my stepsons, growing up with no memories of their mother.

A few years ago, a dear friend died after struggling for eight months with pancreatic cancer. I wept for days, but there was an end to it. I had seen her in the weeks before she died and knew that Earth could not keep her. I climbed in bed with her and held her hand through her fitful sleep. We talked about her fears, her worries about her husband's future, her hopes that he would remarry. When she died, I joined the comforting circle of her family and friends.

Online, people have tried to create such solace through shared rites and activities. One person collected names and wrote them on red "love hearts," which she hung on gum trees near the Australia Zoo. More than 2,500 people responded to this post.

Another, B.J. Boyatt of Pipestone, Minn., organized a Native American ritual, combining aspects of the Floating Leaves and Harvest Moon ceremonies. Both, she said, are a way to "send prayers to the Creator." Boyatt posted this note on the message board: "It doesnt matter . . . as I send the leaves, my Prayer is for Steve, and my Dad, and your Dad/Mother/Brother . . . it just doesnt matter who it is."

I asked her if this ceremony had helped her, or if she had found comfort in the online world. She e-mailed back, "It helps to find other people who feel like you do in nearly any circumstance. Most of us in the forum thought we were a bit crazy to be affected the way we have been, but it has turned out we are not the only person feeling the pain."

Indeed, my online conversations have been as comforting as a church funeral service in which I know the prayers by heart, or the memorial gatherings where we drink coffee and tell happy stories about our dead.

My own dead are just that: gone, buried or scattered to the wind. I will never see most of them on video, or hear their voices on tape or film. My memory keeps a bit of their lives, but for the most part, there is just the void of time.

In the days since my unbidden, perhaps irrational and certainly upsetting reaction to Steve Irwin's death, I have gained some peace by deciding to just let the emotion be. No doubt when the sadness lifts, I will feel more like myself again -- although a self changed by his death, as it has been changed by so many others, strangers and intimates, celebrities and neighbors. This is the cycle of life, but crikey! I am far from understanding it.

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