Such a private thing as grief for some is eased in public
Roadside memorials: ugly eyesores or acceptable tributes? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself when driving past faded flowers, bleached notes and weathered mementos (usually gathered around implacable old gumtrees in the Adelaide Hills).
Call me callous, but in the past I’ve always viewed them as just plain maudlin – especially as the months drag by and they become increasingly bedraggled and forlorn. Then on Thursday I read about Eric O’Neil, a heartbroken dad grieving the loss of his 31-year-old son Allen, who died three years ago in a workplace accident.
Since early 2010, Eric has maintained a small beachside memorial to his son near the Christies Beach Surf Lifesaving Club. He leaves a beer at Christmas and other special occasions, symbolically sharing a drink with a son he loves and misses so much.
Allen had been a member of the lifesaving club since he was seven, and his ashes were scattered offshore, not far from the memorial.
But after three years – and reportedly following a single complaint – Onkaparinga Council has deemed the memorial an “unauthorised structure” requiring official council approval.
Lousy timing. Precious people are never missed more than at this time of year, so you’d think after all this time the council could have been a bit more sensitive.
But here’s where I get conflicted.
I don’t particularly like these memorials, but I can’t believe anyone would make a complaint about a little monument that’s obviously well cared for – and therefore clearly essential to the grieving process of a shattered family.
Plenty of people on AdelaideNow back the complainant though – and just to add to my own confusion I can appreciate where they’re coming from, too.
“Memorials belong at the cemetery,” wrote one reader. “Everywhere else is for the living. Grief is a private thing, and please don’t make it public.”
“Why would anyone do this in a public space!” wrote another. “If it was for his own benefit he should have a memorial in his back yard so he can sit in a chair and have a drink and remembrance to his son he loved.”
I get all that. As a society we need to maintain the integrity and aesthetics of our public places, and State Government rules (enforced by councils) are there to prevent every man and his dog from placing memorials on foreshores and roadsides.
After all, how many is too many? Is it OK to put a memorial outside someone else’s house? Should memorials be removed if they’re not maintained? And who judges what’s “maintained”?
But ultimately, a single response on AdelaideNow cemented my support for Neil and others like him.
It read: “You don’t need a memorial in a public place to grieve.”
Who knows what might help to ease the pain of suddenly losing a loved one in a tragic accident?
If a family needs a small roadside (or beachside) memorial to get through the first weeks, or months, or years, the rest of us should respect that need and cut them some slack.
Memorialising people is important and cathartic – look at the tributes that flowed this week for cricketer and commentator Tony Greig.
But not all of us will have cricket stands, statues or scholarships unveiled after our passing. Simpler tributes have to suffice: Allen O’Neil might not have been as famous as Tony Grieg, but he was clearly no less loved.
A number of clever AdelaideNow readers came up with compromise suggestions such as a small plaque or public bench to mark Allen’s life and love of surf lifesaving. (And I’d like to think councils would make this easy for families to achieve.)
In the meantime, let Neil keep his memorial: it’s not hurting anyone, but it’s helping him.
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