It’s never easy asking someone about the death of a loved one. Yet, as a journalist, it’s something that happens time after time. And everyone comes to the table differently. Some talk obliquely about their feelings, not sure whether they’d like to let another person in. Others barely keep their feelings under control, their emotions pouring from them like a torrent.
Terri Irwin, however, stands alone in my experience as an interviewer. Never before have I encountered a woman so willing to open her feelings in public, and for the best of reasons.
Terri, of course, is wildlife warrior Steve Irwin’s widow, the woman who has stepped into his shoes to become parent their children Bindi and Robert, as well as take up Steve’s mantle as a champion for wildlife and conservation.
It’s 10 years since Steve’s tragic death. Ten years since he was stabbed in the heart by the flailing tail of a stingray while filming a documentary on the Great Barrier Reef. Ten years since Terri felt the pangs of a grief that quite honestly has never left her.
I first met Terri in those awful days after Steve died. Sitting in a chair amidst an exhibit at Australia Zoo, the Irwin wildlife park in Queensland, she was calm and collected and ready to speak, not because she wanted to but because she felt she owed Steve’s many fans a duty to speak, to let them know how she and their children were coping with such an unpredictable, inexplicable, saddening event.
It was a harrowing experience, both for Terri and for me. Many times during our talk, we had to stop to wipe away our tears. There’s an old journalistic adage that says you should never get personally involved in the stories you tell. But in telling Terri’s story, that was an impossibility.
I’ve met Terri many times since then and interviewed her at various stages of what she now refers to as her “grief journey”.
I’ve witnessed her break down at the smallest things, once when she was having her hair trimmed for a Weekly photographic shoot when the prospect of cutting her hair – the hair that Steve liked her to wear long – became too much. It was a sudden, honest reaction, and so utterly human, that it took my breath away.
All of us experience grief in our loves. Every single one of us. But only a very few will ever have to endure that grief so publicly as Terri and her family.
That she is willing to discuss her feelings is remarkable. But she does so because she believes that in doing so, she may help others on the journey that she has experienced. The grief doesn’t go away. It might not even get any easier – Terri admits she still cries at the most inappropriate moments, such as giving a lecture – but time and circumstance do help you develop a way to cope, to adjust to a new way of life without your loved one.
That’s where Terri is now, in a new way of life without her loved one – the loved one with whom she expected to grow old. And I feel honoured that she has allowed me to share some of that journey with her and to tell her story to the readers of The Weekly. Very honoured indeed.
Read Michael Sheather’s emotional interview with Terri Irwin in the September issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale August 4.