Ari Michelson
Patrick Gomez
October 28, 2015 11:45 AM

Bindi Irwin was just 8 years old when her father died.

Crocodile Hunter star Steve Irwin was working on the documentary series Ocean’s Deadliest when he was attacked by a stingray off the coast of northern Australia in 2006, leaving Bindi, her mother Terri and her younger brother Robert without their “superhero.”

“Dad was the strongest person I’ve ever known,” Irwin, 17, says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “And when the strongest person is taken away, you kind of go, ‘Oh my goodness. What are we going to do?’ “

Robert, Terri and Bindi Irwin
Ari Michelson

Their shared loss has created a tight bond between Bindi, Terri, 51, and Robert, 11.

“As a family, we’ve gotten so close. The three of us, no matter where we are in the world, we’ll always stick together,” says Irwin, whose family made the temporary move with her to Los Angeles in August so they could live together as she competes on season 21 of Dancing with the Stars. “We can count on each other on the good days and bad days.”

RELATED VIDEO: Bindi Irwin Pays Tearful Tribute to Her Late Father Steve Irwin on Dancing with the Stars

Having that support system has become ever more important to Irwin as she enters adulthood and continues life in the public eye.

“I think everyone is given those couple of people in life, whether they are related to you or not, that will stand by you no matter what,” she says. “You have to treasure them because they come into your life for a reason. Sometimes you do just have to let go and be supported.”

She says her family gives her strength.

“And that’s what’s great about my family, I’m a strong individual, but I know I can always just lean on them and know that I have their love and support,” says Irwin.

Khloamp#233; Kardashian on the cover of PEOPLE

For more from Bindi Irwin – including her relationship with her “incredible” boyfriend and how she’s honoring her father’s legacy – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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