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The Sea of Flowers Phenomenon

A new paper highlights the important role in public grieving played by temporary memorials – the sea of flowers and other items that springs up temporarily at times of collective trauma.

Red Cross Emergency Services National Coordinator Shona Whitton has published the paper after researching temporary memorials internationally.

Writing in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Ms Whitton says temporary memorials are now standard sights after sudden and mass casualty events such as the Bourke Street tragedy in 2017, the Dreamworld accident in 2016 and the Martin Place siege in 2014.

“We see them when there’s an act of terror, airplane and other transport accidents, the death of high profile people and events involving the death of children,” she says.

"These collective acts of grief are important. They give people a safe place to participate in individual and communal mourning.

”They often spring up in the hours after a critical incident when people start to feel the need to share their sorrow and loss, even if they are not directly impacted by the event.

“Post disaster rituals give people the chance to express their shock, anger, disbelief, grief and other emotions. This can help regain feelings of control, and even establishes social solidarity and a sense of belonging. At these memorials people find others who are experiencing similar emotions, and this shared experience normalises their feelings.

“These are important first steps in healing. Temporary memorials become sites of connection, hope and recovery.”

Ms Whitton says Red Cross is often asked to provide support to people at times of collective grief.

“Our Emergency Services volunteers and staff are trained in Psychological First Aid; we’re trained to offer a friendly face, a listening ear, and a shoulder to cry on. We help people make sense of the experience. The evidence shows that if this type of support is provided early, it can help with recovery from trauma.”

Red Cross has recently published psychosocial guidelines on temporary memorial management to help those working in post disaster recovery.

It lists a range of considerations for those working in the emergency sector to take into account, including access to the site, how and when to remove a temporary memorial, and preserving the material.