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The importance of grief in building a better community

How temporary public memorials bring people together after a crisis.

Thursday December 15, 2016

Shona Whitton, National Recovery Coordinator

Two years ago today, Sydney held its breath as a lone gunman kept customers and staff hostage in the Lindt Café at Martin Place.

The tragic outcome of the siege is etched in our memories. We can still remember the faces of those held hostage.

Among our memories of the siege are the thousands of flowers, letters and cards left by members of the public in a temporary memorial in Martin Place.

One of the most striking images were of small children using chalk to draw countless hearts next to words like 'love', 'embrace' and 'life'. These simple words written by a child's hand symbolised our refusal to be bowed by such a tragedy that had rippled through the city.

However, at the time talkback radio crackled with criticism from people who didn't understand the need for such a public display from people who didn't even know those affected. There was similar criticism of the temporary memorial for Princess Diana after she died in 1997.

We know first hand the positive impact temporary memorials can have. Our staff and volunteers worked with communities during situations like the Martin Place siege, the recent Dreamworld incident and many others. We are there with people during the crisis and as they cope with the aftermath.

Public memorials bring us together, dispelling the myth that the digital world has made us socially isolated. Research shows that we still crave human connection and community because social ties matter and help us to recover faster after trauma.

As NSW Premier Mike Baird said of the temporary memorial:

"It showed everyone across this city was prepared to stop what they were doing. They were prepared to say, 'There is something more important than my priority'. It also said, 'We are very proud of this city and that those that might want to come and bring hate, we have another message, we come together and respond in love'."

Of course, one important issue is the removal of the temporary memorial when the timing is right. How do you sensitively dismantle a temporary public memorial without upsetting the thousands of people who took the time to create it?

We help to sort through every card and message and the flowers treated appropriately. It's a painstaking process because we recognise that memorial items can carry the essence of emotion, feelings of grief, sadness, fear and even anger.

We also know that recovery after tragedies can take time and anniversaries can be especially difficult. Talking about what you're going through with family and friends may help, as can reading our tip sheets, or contacting Lifeline (1800 543 354).

Shona Whitton is the National Recovery Coordinator, Emergency Services at Australian Red Cross. She recently completed a Churchill Trust Fellowship, Exploring the Role of Memorialising in Disaster Recovery.