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Lessons learned from Phillip Hughes grieving

  • 11 December 2014

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