The right thing to do.

My colleague, collaborator and great friend,  Shona Whitton left us a couple of weeks ago, having outgrown what we wanted from her at work. Like me, and Kate Brady, she’s very fascinated by how we make sense of disasters, from the first minutes to the years afterwards. One thing she has made a bit of a specialty of is the management of temporary memorials.

From the aftermath of the Sydney Lindt Café Siege, she was heavily involved in advising on how to sensitively manage the site. This then morphed into a Churchill Fellowship, where she travelled, among other places, to Boston (the marathon bombings), New York, Paris (the Bataclan Nightclub massacre) and Norway.

I’m not going to talk much about them, because Shona can do that. Have a look at the interview she did with ABC News.You should also read her Churchill report, which details her trip and what she found. Or the entry in the last AIDR Monograph series on Recovery.  And, if you happen to find yourself in the situation, then there’s always these guidelines that she put together (and no, encouraging people to donate money rather than lay a tribute because its hard to manage, is not a solution).

She’s started a blog site, The Second Disaster. Well worth getting along to and following.

Interestingly, I hadn’t realised that floral tributes emerged in Victorian times, as this fascinating article by Hilda Maclean in The Conversation outlines. Grief was very much a public thing, and people participated in it. The first world war robbed many families of a body to commit to the ground, so war memorials became the focus for families. (in the same way the Strathewen memorial has come for those families who’s loved one was cremated).  As time has gone on, grief had move from the public into the private realm. Princess Diana’s death changed all that. Graham Little’s fantastic book, The Public Emotion describes how a public figure whom we do not know, but were so familiar with pricked a consciousness, and a need to do something, outside of the formal official memorial processes (most likely because the formality of monarchy wasn’t getting it right).

After the Bali Bombings, the steps of the Victorian Parliament House, become a temporary shrine. Martin Flanagan captured it, in his own wonderful style. Why parliament? My sister Mary mused at the time, that it was a place that was a strong, dependable, prominent building, and represented democracy (remember this was a time when there were still vestiges of respect for politicians).

One of the flower memorial for the murdered Jill Meagher was at the place where she was last seen alive, captured on CCTV walking past a bridal shop in Sydney Rd Brunswick. As it grew and grew, it needed to be managed respectfully, as it began to block the footpath. Again, my sister (a local resident), also saw through the memorial to the other side, and took some cakes up to the young women in the bridal shop, who were witnessing the growing of the memorial. “This is for you girls, I hope you are OK”.

Talking with people in Bourke St who came to lay some flowers, I was naturally inquisitive. Not everyone could articulate why they were there. Some thought it was a bit odd I was asking. Most said something along the lines of they felt like it was the right thing to do, and they were coming to pay respects as it could have been anyone, including them, that a grip on life is tenuous, and we forget that sometimes. A few said, I guess you could go to a church, but nobody goes to church any more.  In some respects, the circle is turning, with people grieving at the site closest to death.

These are the little things, at the margins, that add to the complexity of disasters. Its where you need to put personal preferences out of the way, and respond to what is happening

The incomparable Ray La Montagne


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