September 25, 2006 12:00 PM

Terri Irwin has never known pain like this. “There’s nothing to compare it to,” her mother, Julia Raines, says of the impact Terri felt since she first heard her husband had been killed in a rare stingray attack. Retreating to the home she shared with her Crocodile Hunter mate, Steve Irwin, inside Queensland’s Australia Zoo, Terri, 42, took solace in the arms of children Bindi, 8, and Bob, 2. “She wants her kids to be strong, so she has to be strong,” says Irwin’s pal and producing partner John Stainton, who was with the 44-year-old adventurer when he died. And as much as she wants to acknowledge the fans who mourn with her, the attention, explains Stainton, “adds a weight that’s unnatural—you can’t even breathe.”

It was fitting then that Irwin’s funeral was intimate. Those who loved him most gathered by a campfire and said goodbye. “Just as he would have wanted,” says his father, Bob Irwin, “with everyone telling their favorite stories about him.” A public memorial will take place Sept. 20 at Australia Zoo. That, says Stainton, will be more of a “celebration of his life. Steve would not have wanted us to have everyone around crying.” Nor would he have wanted fans to avenge his death. Since Sept. 4, when Irwin was struck in the heart by a stingray barb while filming, at least 10 of the docile creatures have been found mutilated along the Queensland coast. Australian authorities suspect that fans are venting their anger by harming the wildlife Irwin spent his whole life protecting.

Thanks to his family, Irwin’s animal-friendly philosophy will live on. His plans for a massive zoo expansion are under way. And his daughter Bindi will pick up her daddy’s torch with her series Jungle Girl, which Stainton says will air in the U.S. in January. Irwin was filming a segment for the show when he died. Indeed, the day after the tragedy, in part in tribute to Irwin’s indomitable spirit, his crew bravely set out to capture the ocean footage he had hoped for. With crystal-clear water and an abundance of marine animals, the shoot couldn’t have gone better. “It felt like Steve had a hand in it,” says Stainton. “Like he was looking down, saying, ‘You’ve had a couple of tough days, so I’m going to make this easier for you all.'”

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