Grief must be followed by action

Grace Millane died on the weekend of her 22nd birthday. Photo: supplied
Grace Millane died on the weekend of her 22nd birthday. Photo: supplied
The death of British backpacker Grace Millane has prompted a torrent of horror, anger and grief around the country.

From candlelight vigils to the Prime Minister's apology on behalf of New Zealand, the country has reacted strongly to the tragedy that has unfolded over the past two weeks.

And it is a tragedy. Miss Millane was a woman who, at just 22, had left all that was familiar so she could learn what was over the next hill.

Undoubtedly, along the way she saw and experienced things which left her elated, matured and more aware.

Then she met a man in Auckland who, it is alleged, killed her.

For more than half her life, she had been a child. Then she had negotiated her teenage years and come out the other side with an education and a bright future. Her adult life, however, was in its infancy and it is not only her presence, her quirks, her company and companionship that will be missed by her friends and family, it is also her potential.

What might she have achieved? Who might she have become? What love and friendship and warmth might she have given?

The death of any young person is tragic, no matter the circumstances. Disease, suicide, accidents, natural disasters and, in many parts of the world, starvation, war and deprivation, can all rob a young person of their life and potential.

But this week, New Zealand's grief has been particularly acute. Partly, that is because we are only able to grieve for that which we are aware. The media has followed Grace Millane's story in great depth, allowing New Zealanders to understand some of the context behind what may otherwise be just another statistic.

We also tend to grieve most when we can see ourselves, or those we love, in the victims. The fact Miss Millane was a backpacker has undoubtedly rocked this country. We are a nation of travellers. We backpack across the world with a barely conscious expectation that the world will know we are young, wide-eyed and a long way from home and will treat us kindly. What happened to Grace, in our own back yard, was the antithesis of that. This is not the New Zealand we want the world to see. It is not what we want our children to experience on the far side of the world.

But there is another reason this tragedy has garnered the reaction it has. It is yet another case of a man violently assaulting a woman. There has been a lot written this year about the way some men treat women. The #MeToo movement stole headlines for a number of weeks and brought to light horrendous behaviours by men abusing their positions, their privilege and their strength to dominate, manipulate and assault women.

Men abuse the responsibility that comes with possessing strength and women have their lives altered, ruined or ended accordingly. It is bigger than a gender issue, though. There are also many males who have their lives altered, ruined or ended at the hands of violent men. Any victim of senseless savagery is one too many, yet New Zealand men continue to transgress.

New Zealand has a violence issue. Currently, the tragedy of Grace Millane is highlighting this ugly undercurrent, but any day, any week of the year it could be somebody else. It must stop.

We pour billions of dollars into improving, preserving and saving lives. We focus our best minds, provide the cash, and solve the seemingly unsolvable. Are we willing to take the same approach to violence? It must be hoped the public grief and the vigils for Grace Millane will, to some extent, encourage the violent among us to rethink their choices, to seek help.

But this shouldn't end at vigils. New Zealand must stop the violence, whatever the cost.


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