Tuesday, 30 December 2014

When Is Enough, Enough?

When are we going to let Phil Hughes die?

It may sound a harsh reaction to the manner in which his death has been played out in public, because their is no doubt the players have been shocked by his death and are experiencing real and painful loss. The problem lies not in their grieving but the way those outside that inner circle of friends have sustained that grief.

Clearly, from all the best people in grief management and those who have experienced it and come out the other side, people must be allowed to grieve in their own way and in their own time but sooner rather than later, life must go on. His death was a terrible accident and one that has affected many more than his loved ones and friends because it has given us all a reminder of our vulnerability - of the easy way in which we can be laughing one minute and silenced the next. His age and the sudden ending of his life gives us all pause for thought, even if we had never heard of him before the TV screens started replaying the bouncer, the contact and the sickening collapse to the turf. We are in shock. For some, the loss rekindles times of our own personal grief and marks our own loss as piquant and alarmingly painful again ... but life does go on.

Cricket Australia's initial reaction ... a suspension of matches, the seeking of an agreement to alter the Test match schedule to buy time for those close to the action and to issue a statement of support and understanding for the players, was appropriate and a fulfilment of their duty of care. Allowing the players so personally affected the option of sitting out the First Test was also an action of support.

The problem has come since, where we have done that commendable but unrealistic and certainly unhelpful thing or lifting Phil Hughes up in death to well beyond who he was in life. He was, after all, a humble young man whose achievements were in personal relationship, not in his impact on society. The impact on the nation almost rivalled the memorial service for Gough Whitlam, a man of such greatness that a country was completely reformed and generations since have reaped the benefit. Death, terror and human suffering stopped being noticed, almost inexplicably, for weeks after Hughes death, as we all faced the fragile grip we have on life.

One cannot blame the Hughes family for agreeing to televise their son's funeral. One can only hope it gave them closure to what had been a short but public life and that it is not something they might later regret. Beyond these measures, the rest has smacked of a lack of understanding of what is required to continue to support the players cope.

Whilst it can be understood that much of what followed in Adelaide and since, has been initiated by the players, Cricket Australia should have resisted and gently coerced the players away from the ongoing tributes that they are paying to whom Michael Clarke calls "his little mate". The 408 painted on the outfield; the 63 seconds of applause; Hughes player number on the players shirts; the black arm bands; the declaration that Hughes would be 13th man for the series ... these are all things which should never have been sanctioned and never agreed to on a corporate basis.

Personal tributes and dedications by individuals have been touching. No one doubts, for instance, that Warner and Clarke batted with a fiercer determination in their innings in Adelaide and that they indeed batted in homage to Hughes. No one would begrudge glances to the sky, presumably to a heaven very few of them believe exists, in order to communicate and justify their actions as part of them respecting Hughes memory. However, allowing the systemic and by now, ongoing recognition of Hughes, is a grave mistake. When someone dies, eventually, you have to let them go. Still wearing black arm bands two Tests later, still having his number on their chest, is only acting to forestall the resolution of their grief. One understands Clarke's sentiment when he asserts that he will think of his "little brother" everyday for the rest of his life. Its heartfelt and genuine but its not the reality. These are statements one makes in the period of grieving, made mostly to delay that moment when we finally accept that the person we have loved, has in fact died. We might try to surround ourselves with their memory and commemorate objects and events and anniversaries in order to allay our greatest fear - that by failing to keep them upper most in our lives we are failing to love them - but life isn't meant to be that way.

Those that have loved and lost great relationships through death will tell you two things, that the pain of the loss of their companionship never goes away but that, in truth, life does go on and so it should. The pain comes less often but not less intensely.

By setting up all of these reminders and keeping Hughes fresh in the minds of their players, Cricket Australia are denying them the chance to undergo normal process. It may be well meant, it may even be good public relations with a community which has been touched, in some cases deeply by his death but its not good psychology. Delaying healing is a dangerous thing.

This is not to say that understanding should not be exercised or that players should be told to man up and get on with it. Not at all. It does, however, mean that the very public and demonstrative systemic response must now return to normal. If media reports and comments from players and family are any guide, its likely that Hughes himself, an immensely practical country boy, would have understood that life is for living and that death is just a necessary if unpleasant part of life's cycle.

Its time to hand grief back to the individual and remove the armbands and give players back their own identities and let them get on with the personal business of grieving. Perhaps the time to draw a public end will come in Sydney, for even though Hughes went to South Australia for opportunity, no kid form the NSW bush has any more fervent wish than to play beside the ghosts of those who once sent their spikes into the wooden benches in the SCG dressing sheds. It was here he died living his dream and working hard to further it. There will no doubt be more ceremonies delivered, more words said and more tears shed but that's where it should end. When the game ends, give the players back their own shirts, cast the black arm bands into a pyre and wait for the next sunrise.

Let him go.