Mum remembers Kyle, the son she lost to a shark attack
When Sharon Burden's eyes drifted to the airport TV, she felt a stab of grief as her son's story flashed on to the screen. Nine hours earlier, Gold Coast police had told her that her only child, Kyle James Burden, 21, had been killed by a great white shark while body-boarding the pristine breaks of WA's Bunker Bay.
Alone and in a public place, Sharon stifled her reaction. Kyle's death had made the news headlines before she had even had a chance to say goodbye. To this day, she can't read a scrolling news feed that snakes across the bottom of television screens.
"In the airport it was on the news and that's a horrifying thing," she says. "But I knew it would be on the news because shark attacks always are. Seeing that vision was difficult because I felt this need to get to him."
As the plane took off from Gold Coast airport to Sydney so Sharon could see family en route to Perth, the G-force pushed her body back into her seat and she started to sob. It was one of Kyle's favourite feelings when he was young and Sharon suddenly realised she would never again share that moment with him.
"That was one of those really poignant moments where it was full force, knowing I would never do that with him again," she says.
It was the most difficult flight of her life, only made bearable by the extraordinary kindness of a man named Hugo sitting next to her.
"I started to sob and Hugo leaned over and said, 'What's wrong?', and I told him," she says.
"He was just the most amazing man because most people would probably either not want talk to you or change the conversation but he just said, 'Tell me about your son', so the whole trip down he just listened."
She is still brought to tears by that very human moment.
Sharon immediately started to realise how different life would be for her after Kyle's loss.
In the two years since his death, Sharon has charted new waters and gradually learnt to live with a new reality of being a mother of a deceased child, whose fate will forever be linked to WA's ocean.
She is also now part of an exclusive but growing group of people in WA who have lost a loved one to a shark attack.
With another summer, every shark sighting, attack and death is back in the news. But few people who lose a loved one to a shark attack get a choice about how that death is handled in such a public way. And, like most things in the public sphere, such tragedies often come with critics, ignorance and hurtful comments.
Kyle was about 50m off the beach at
a known surfing break when he was attacked. It was Sunday afternoon, September 4, 2011, and he was in the water, along with a number of surfers, doing what thousands do around Australia on any given day. After the attack, two surfers pulled Kyle to shore, which earned them each a national bravery award.
Sharon gets frustrated when people attribute the shark attack to all sorts of theories - blaming Kyle because "he was dressed like a seal", or "surfing somewhere unsafe", or out in the water at the "wrong time of day".
"People need to rethink before they have the 'blame the victim' reaction, without knowing any of the facts about what happened," she says.
"Comments and speculation like this are so unhelpful, and just add further pain to those going through the loss. As a psychologist I understand the phenomenon, but as a mother it made me so frustrated."
For Kyle's girlfriend at the time, Jess Mooney, dealing with the shocked reaction of others taught her to change the subject.
"I don't think they believed me but I would say, 'I'm not joking about this'. I didn't get angry, I just didn't want to talk about it," she remembers.
"I would get upset when people wanted to know too many details about the event. I would rather people just talked about Kyle."
Reporters especially wanted to talk in detail about Kyle and, as a sports psychologist, Sharon knew to expect a media scrum at Bunker Bay the day after Kyle's death.
"For me the level wasn't that intrusive but we were also very fortunate that we had a wonderful support team around us from the Dunsborough Police, the businesses at Bunker Bay and all the locals who were so respectful and helpful," she says.
"I saw it as an opportunity to thank those involved and help Kyle have a voice and I hope in some small way we also reinforced that message to respect the ocean and all its creatures in it."
But she still felt violated when some media outlets grabbed photos off Facebook or positioned a photo of Kyle directly above a picture of a great white with its jaws gaping in a Queensland story about a bounty hunter.
"The Jaws phenomenon has meant that shark-attack victims and their families often
have to deal with insensitive use of images," Sharon says. "If you have spent a lot of time trying not to think about what it must be like in those final moments, the last thing you want
to have to deal with, potentially anytime you turn the television on, are those images. It's
"A photo of Kyle popped up that I know wasn't released to the media and I know it came off a private Facebook page. That was confronting. We wouldn't have released it because it was a private moment with another family member."
As the thunder barks loudly on an unusually humid spring day, Sharon sits at her outdoor fold-up table at her Mandurah home, reflecting on the past two years.
Kyle's favourite black cat Pablo dozes on the table while Sharon measures the toll the constant reminders have taken on her life.
There's news reports, legal affairs for Kyle's estate, returning to work and a daily search for strength to carry on in a nation where sharks are a part of everyday life. It all took a toll.
"Once the raw emotional part of the journey comes to an end, some of the hardest transitions are still to follow. I think that's often the part of a tragedy that we don't hear about or think about,'' Sharon says.
"Trying to return to the workplace was disastrous. I found it almost impossible to be the person I needed to be in a professional setting, even with my training in psychology.
"On top of that Kyle died intestate (without a will), and that created contested legal issues that have only just been resolved.
"In the end I coped by deciding to sacrifice my financial position in order to allow myself the time I needed to learn to live without Kyle in my life, and to accept that the future that I had envisaged for myself - including sharing the joys of being a parent and grandparent in my son's life - was now gone forever."
The first step forward was to move to WA, which Sharon had been already planning on doing to be closer to Kyle before he died. The pair had visited Bunker Bay on their travels around Australia when Kyle was young.
For a precious few years the mother-son duo hit the road together where Sharon taught him the value of measured risk while living life to the full.
"Because we lost him so early, there was some comfort that he had travelled so much and he had so many adventures in that time," she says.
"We always had these deep conversations. The philosophy being, don't wait until you have children and get married to do what you want to do. Make sure you plan ahead and make sure that what you're doing now is something you're passionate about and enjoy."
True to his youthful years and his mother's philosophy, Kyle lived much of his life in the moment. He was fearless but not reckless and explored the world with a healthy curiosity.
It's a philosophy shared by the Rev John Hewitson who counsels families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances.
That can involve events such as fires, people lost on bushwalks or at sea and those attacked by a shark where the body has not been recovered. He is always awestruck by the profound courage of families who have chosen life after such tragedy - especially for parents who have lost a child in a risky situation.
"It is an incredible, terrible and courageous decision to choose loving and life again," Hewitson says. "In the case of a young person there is the shattered life not yet lived with so much promise and hope.
"The idea of not teaching someone to surf 'just in case' ultimately destroys life. So where there is a situation where the parents have nurtured and encouraged that skill of surfing means there was an affirmation of life."
He understands that some people want to seek revenge out of pain and a desire to prevent such tragedies or to ensure others don't have to suffer the same terrible fate. He encourages families and loved ones to acknowledge the passion that drew the person to that environment and the risk it involved.
"That is the environment of the animals, too." Hewitson says. "It's not a matter of revenge. It's about how can we find ways to more effectively share that environment that doesn't destroy the other or destroy ourselves."
Kyle understood that deep respect for nature and its wild animals. The last picture of him was taken a week before he died, showing him looking relaxed, sporting a comfortable beard and wearing a Sea Shepherd jersey.
"Kyle was also very rational and a big believer in scientific fact," Sharon says. "He was always quoting titbits of factual trivia, and so I think that's why those of us who knew Kyle believe that he would be the first to advocate for conservation and thoughtful action."
Fear and respect for this mysterious creature of the sea occupies the psyche of almost every human who chooses to enter the waters off our magnificent coast.
To this day, Sharon still doesn't believe in killing sharks - not even the shark that killed Kyle.
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and for me we need to allow the scientists to develop the technologies that allow us to be safe in the water but don't hurt other marine life," she says.
"We have to be hopeful that they are making those decisions about how to deal with imminent threats based on science and not sensationalism."
She says we have to make a decision about whether we "kill the shark just so we can go back in the water today". "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that," she says. "But we are hard-wired to fear sharks. We need to find the balance between reporting for safety and public information and sensationalism that just drives unnecessary fear."
Statistically, the average West Australian has more chance of dying in a car accident than dying from a shark attack.
In the past 220 years since recording began, WA has experienced 90 shark attacks, 19 of which were fatal, with the last in July 2012 at Wedge Island. In the same time frame, WA experienced 3345 deaths in car accidents.
According to the Australian Shark Attack File at Taronga Zoo there is a one in 3300 chance of drowning in Australian waters and a one in 292,000 chance of being killed by a shark.
What strikes fear into the hearts of many West Australians and why the media now reports every sighting, attack and injury is because 14 of those fatal attacks occurred in the past 20 years.
Successive WA governments have invested millions into preventing shark attacks with a tagging program, a proposed shark net at Geographe Bay and ongoing research through the Department of Fisheries. A total of $20 million of State Government funds has been committed over four years to 2015-16 for shark-hazard mitigation strategies.
Surf Lifesaving WA tweets almost daily when a shark is spotted and also alerts Twitter followers to any tagged shark coming close to a beacon.
It's been two years now since Kyle died, and life is slowly moving on. For Jess Mooney,
the first year of grief was by far the hardest because the young couple had just started to build a life together in Margaret River.
But seeing Sharon reminds Jess of Kyle and the two women have developed a strong relationship and are still in touch.
"It just took time and I started to open up a bit and it was really nice when we could openly talk about Kyle," Jess says.
"Since then I have moved on and I am in a new relationship, which proves there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's always in the back of my mind when I go in the water and it does scare me, but I like to go out with friends and I try not to let it beat me."
Sharon Burden, meanwhile, plans to spend the rest of her life protecting a tiny patch of the world at Bunker Bay in the place Kyle loved the most.
She also tends to the memorial that she worked with local artist Simon James to create - a sculpture erected at Bunker Bay in February. She has created a website, http://www.bunkersbodyboarder.com
, all about the sculpture and the beach rehabilitation work.
"Kyle was a deep thinker from a young age and he wanted to visit every war memorial in every country town and he would stand there for a moment and pay his respects," she recalls.
"So I had the idea to build a memorial to hopefully make people stop for a moment and think about their own lives, not for Kyle so much, but to take a moment and stop at this amazing place and not take it for granted."
Sharon feels a strong connection to Kyle and the community at Bunker Bay. Sitting in the sand at the bay, her arms wrapped around her knees, Sharon watches the body boarders and surfers catching their waves.
"It's where I feel most at peace," she says. "Even right from the beginning, it always felt like a comforting place. I feel very connected to it and probably always will be."http://www.heraldsun.com.au