IN the hours and days after four people died on the Thunder River Rapids ride, thousands of people flocked to Dreamworld to lay flowers, attend candlelight vigils and pay their heartfelt respects.
The grassy hill outside the popular Gold Coast theme park became a memorial site, covered in bouquets and teddy bears and touching notes – a place of pilgrimage for throngs of locals and tourists wanting to express their grief.
There’s a popular name for this type of public outpouring –“mourning sickness” – which has been defined as “a collective emotional condition of ‘recreational grieving’ by individuals in the wake of celebrity deaths and other public traumas”.
We saw it in Martin Place after the Lindt Café siege, after the Paris terror attacks, the Bali bombings, and of course when Princess Diana died in a car crash.
Only 12 years ago, in a report, Conspicuous Compassion, British author Patrick West said “mourning sickness” was a substitute for religion.
Rather than “piling up damp teddies and rotting flowers” people should go out and do some real good, he urged.
Mr West said people were trying to feel better about themselves by taking part in “manufactured emotion”, related to people’s own emotional needs, rather than any real rapport with the deceased.
Describing extravagant public displays of grief for strangers as “grief-lite”, Mr West said these activities were, “undertaken as an enjoyable event, much like going to a football match or the last night of the proms”.
“Mourning sickness is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches,” he said.
“Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes’ silences its liturgy and mass,” he said.
“But these new bonds are phoney, ephemeral and cynical.
“We saw this at its most ghoulish after the demise of Diana. In truth, mourners were not crying for her, but for themselves.”
Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge is familiar with “mourning sickness” and said it was a sign of a society struggling to deal creatively with grief.
“In a society that doesn’t know what to do with grief, doesn’t understand it, doesn’t know how to ritualise it or deal with it creatively, this is the best we can manage,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“We are a highly de-ritualised society and culture. And at a point when you need ritual to deal with the powerful experience of grief the culture doesn’t offer much.
“It’s interesting at a Catholic funeral where the ritual is still quite powerful a lot of people who come there but are not very religious are struck by that – because they are not used to it.
“But they have some unexpressed sense that this ritual has a power that nothing else has and can reach deeper into the human experience of grief to bring something out of it.
“This is a case of people reaching for something that the culture doesn’t provide and the best they can manage is a bunch of flowers … and that’s good, but it’s never going to really deal with grief in a deep and creative way.”
As viewers of the 24-hour news cycle we have all witnessed how media contributes to “mourning sickness”, with the constant demands to produce news stories.
In the aftermath of tragic events, journalists “on the scene” and in a constant search for a new angle, often focus their attention on the public reaction, including the laying of floral tributes and candlelight vigils.
Still firmly in the public gaze, Dreamworld announced on November 2 it would build a permanent memorial for the four tourists who died on the Thunder River Rapids ride.
A similar decision to erect a permanent memorial using flowers left by mourners was made after the Lindt Café siege two years ago.
Dreamworld sought advice from the Red Cross about how to deal with the still mounting pile of flowers, letters and soft toys near the park’s entrance.
The flowers were removed to be used in a “permanent, living memorial at Dreamworld”, the notes were to be scanned and digitised and kept on record, and the toys and other gifts were collected and stored until a decision made on what should be done with them.
The families were invited to help create a fitting and permanent memorial.
By Mark Bowling