Lessons learned from Phillip Hughes grieving


Phillip Hughes media coverage

Many words have already been written about the life, death and burial of Philip Hughes, the gifted cricketer and evidently generous person who died two weeks ago. People have also noted the way in which the man and his death were remembered by cricketers at all levels around the world. Some have applauded the widespread popular response to his death: others have questioned it. So it is worth trying to untangle the threads in it.

Responding to death is never simple. We need to learn the steps. Death is an ending, a separation, an absence, a breaking of connections, an absence, a source of great pain. It has no reason and defies explanation.  So a response needs to recognise all this reality of death, strengthen connection, make the dead person present in memory, allow grief, and find symbols that open out to meaning and to hope, so enveloping silence.  

All deaths and the responses to them are distinctive because they involve human beings.  In Philip Hughes’ death there were three central elements. First he died as a young man whose future path remained untaken. The death of young people inevitably confronts us with our own mortality and pushes us to ask what have been building out of the material of our own lives. It also reminds us how precarious are the lives of our children. So it touches us deeply.

Second Philip Hughes’ death was distinctive because it took place in the midst of play. He played professionally a game that many thousands of people have enjoyed playing for recreation. Play mimics the reality of our relationships to the world. In their play children explore, and adults rehearse, ways in which they might interact with others in life, how they might accept success and failure, cooperate with or dominate others. That is why children make heroes among cricket players whose mannerisms they imitate and who embody some of their dreams.  

The relationship of play to reality is complex. Although play mimics reality and is an important part of it, it is discontinuous with reality in the sense that it represents a world of possibility, of make-believe. So cricketing heroes are always young and live entirely in the world of cricket. The complex reality of their lives never intrudes. They are not so much role models as dream figures.  So when a cricketer dies playing cricket, the proper relationship between play and reality is shattered. The death is totally disorientating; it both demands and defies response.  

The natural way of responding is to explore the resources of play and the way in which players handle death. So in many schools the day after Hughes died whole classes of children turned up next morning wearing black armbands. Nothing had been proposed by the schools; all was done by social media. The gesture, which clearly met a felt need, echoed a common way in which clubs honoured the dead 

Another symbolic response originating in social media was for cricket players to place their helmets on bats and stand them in line. It quickly spread through the cricketing world. The gesture echoed the fallen soldiers’ battle cross of rifle and helmet placed for dead comrades. It too expressed in the idiom of play solidarity with others in honouring the dead. 

Third the death and funeral of Philip Hughes were significant because they became a media event.  His life was described in great detail and the reactions of his friends and companions to him and to his death were sought. His funeral was intensively covered. Although the mainstream media were sometimes criticised for creating this event, they built on public interest already there. 

At a deeper level, though, media reporting does affect the way people respond to death. It publicises death and grieving, making them visible to a large audience. It also analyses them.  This makes it more difficult to respond simply and naturally to death because we are made self-conscious, aware of what we are doing and of how it might be seen by others. 

Self-consciousness affects the connections we make in grieving. The community of family, friends and town becomes a crowd with a conspicuous media presence that not only reports but changes what it sees. Intimate connections are made complex.

Self-consciousness also affects the symbols through which we respond to death, particularly those that open out to hope. The language and symbols of prayer, for example, evoke a shared world beyond the immediate grief, and invite the mourners to enter it unreflectively. When symbols are explained or words are carried abroad on the media winds, it becomes harder to accept that invitation and to be touched by hope.  

The symbols left are words and demonstrations of grief. When self-conscious, words easily become so general that they are pieties, not intimations, and grief can become so specific that it only exacerbates loss.  

This, of course, is not the fault of the media. It simply indicates the difficulty of responding to death when there is no overarching shared framework of belief and symbol.

It is a truism that ultimately we die and grieve alone. That was true for Philip Hughes and his friends and family. But it is also true that each person’s death touches us even if we are not touched by it. The public participation in the mourning of Philip Hughes testifies to that.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Phillip Hughes, grieving, death, funeral, ritual



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Existing comments

Death evokes our deepest fears, touches our vulnerabilities and happens, sometimes suddenly as for Phillip Hughes, without regard to our merits or exceptional abilities. The public responded to Hughes' death in a personal way and the media played its role in feeding this personal interest. For his family, friends and the people of his home town this death was complicated by public and media interest. Complicated but not compromised.

Pam | 10 December 2014  

Well said - I can only add the words of John Donne, "each man's death diminishes me...and for whom the bell tolls,, it tolls for thee".

Shirley McHugh | 11 December 2014  

A young life cut short in the full glare of TV coverage is a shock, the precariousness of life can touch even a sporting hero and this is a great shock to all (even those who are not fans of test cricket). Andrew I like the way you explore the relationship between reality and play: ‘children explore whilst adults rehearse.’ Perhaps it is the child in each of us that needs to grieve most, but media attention forces us to deal immediately with the adult image that says ‘the precariousness of life’ is unfair. I have trouble with your notion that self-consciousness which is aroused by media interaction leads to a situation where symbols become generalised. Grief is characterised on two levels: its community that helps to maintain perspective whilst the very personal shattering of loss simmers gently in the depths of our being, waiting to be processed over the long course of time. We engage in life with images of how events should play out but (as in the case of the untimely death of Princess Diana) when tragedy strikes a hero our images get struck down and what is left seems unfair. From the moment of our birth we walk the pathway towards death. Our birth means that our death is certain but as Christians we believe that life is continuous even in death. It’s the dichotomous complexity of our humanity that we struggle with most.

Trish Martin | 11 December 2014  

An essay that accords brilliantly with the spirit and mission of Eureka Street. The secular media have had a field day with the accidental death of Phillip Hughes playing the game he loved and mistiming the shot that would normally have brought him a boundary. The shot a split second too soon, the ball within centimetres of safety. Proof, if we ever needed it, that our leash on life is a delicate thread that can snap even in the midst of a game of fun. For a moment during the funeral service I saw Phillip Hughes as the centre of an ever widening radiation of love/admiration, in the first wave was his immediate family, then his cricketing mates, then his town and the church of his baptism, Australia via television and the cricket world via social media. That moment of insight for me was as great an achievement by Phillip Hughes as the six with which he reached his first Test century.

Uncle Pat | 11 December 2014  

Thank you for this thoughtful article. There is still a sense of shock and dismay that Phillip Hughes has died and in such circumstances. His family and friends face lifetime grief. The rest of us will largely remember him for a life cut short, talent still to be fully realised and for the joy he brought to playing cricket.

Kate J | 11 December 2014  

Excellent article Andrew; I found your thoughts on self-consciousness & the symbolism of grieving insightful.

Debbie Lee | 11 December 2014  

3 comments: May Sean Abbott receive as much love and care in life as Philip Hughes has in death. It's worth pondering that a public outpouring of grief tends to escalate when grief, loss and death are privatised. Let's also reflect on how different public expressions of grief have been for Stella Young's life.

mary tehan | 11 December 2014  

Andrew this is a truly beautiful piece. Thank you.

Martin Loney | 11 December 2014  

I could never understand why such a fuss was made over Evita - that is until the death of Dianna. Her death even overshadowed that of Blessed Mother Theresa who died, almost unnoticed, a day or so later. People the world over spontaneously declared Dianna a saint. I then understood the Evita greiving. The passing of Phillip Hughes was on this sort of scale. It went on for days and prompted things like the Bishops gathering around the tomb of St Mary of he Cross MacKillop in prayer and the Mass attended by St Peters 11 in Rome, celebrated of course by its captain. The funeral service was riveting stuff, the highlight of which to me was captain Michal Clarke's sporting speech of the century as he intertwined his and our grief through searching for meaning in every dimension of the word "spirit". As the TV broadcast faded away, I couldn't help thinking that there was something Christ-like about the whole week. i did not know Phillip Hughes but I do, perhaps, somewhat, now. I am left with a new insight of what the grieving must have been like amongst the people who knew of Christ when he was crucified.

Dennis Clarke | 12 December 2014  

The lesson to be drawn from Phil's death being a sincerely unintended consequence is this: Despite Phil's expertise as a batsman and despite his wearing of suitable protective equipment, he was felled by a bouncer. In former times quicks did not bowl more than one short-pitched ball an over at TOP ORDER batmen. Now they're bowling them at 9's, 10's and 11's. It's a disgrace and has to stop.

Claude Rigney | 12 December 2014  

Thanks for your thoughtful comments Andrew. Jean

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 14 December 2014  

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