Most days “putting one foot in front of the other is hard,” says Terri Irwin. Yet since her world was shattered on Sept. 4—the day her husband, Steve “the Crocodile Hunter,” was killed by a stingray barb—his determined widow has remained remarkably focused. In addition to helping her children Bindi, 8, and Robert, 3, cope with their grief, she’s also continued her late husband’s conservationist mission. Taking center stage after years of happily ceding it to Steve, she has found an enthusiastic partner in Bindi, who shares her father’s energetic spirit. Carrying on her dad’s legacy “is more important than really anything,” says Bindi, who joined her mother in Los Angeles to perform in G’day USA: Australia Week, an annual festival to promote Australian tourism that had long been a favorite of Steve’s. As for critics who say Bindi should be kept out of the spotlight, “She loves performing and the cruelest thing would be to make her stop,” says her mom, 42. Before their appearance in L.A., Terri—with her kids playing in an adjacent room—spoke with PEOPLE’s Champ Clark about losing her “soulmate,” raising their children alone and how she’s keeping Steve’s spirit alive.
After Steve died I was overwhelmed and surprised by the reaction. I never expected it, and Steve never would have expected it. I felt such an outpouring of love and support and it meant so much to me. I took about 3½ weeks just to be with the kids and try to figure out what we were going to do. It was so shocking and sad and unexpected and scary.
Steve had a magical sixth sense about so many things. Keep in mind that when he filmed wildlife, he didn’t go out to interact with wildlife, wildlife often came to him—it was uncanny. And his feeling of his own mortality was the same. He often said that he felt he wasn’t going to be here for a long time. He was in a hurry to achieve things. He talked openly that death was part of life, about going on his next adventure. And that’s where I believe he is, on his next adventure.
When it has been the hardest, I think back about the things Steve said to me. I’d often say to him, “I wish I were more physically able.” Because Steve was a big guy. And he would respond, “You know, there are different kinds of strengths.” And I really tapped into that after he was gone. I really feel he’s still here, which is a big help. I feel him still.
Kids are amazing because they are more open-minded and spiritual than we are. We tend to start rationalizing everything away and doubting ourselves. Kids are still very open. Bindi and Robert both still feel Steve and they vocalize it. Last night Robert goes, “I’m thinking Daddy is still real, and he’s here.” And I go, “I’m thinking that too.”
Steve will stay a part of our lives. We have him on [TV] every morning at home. I haven’t made a dent in the amount of footage we’ve got of Steve. It’s very lucky for us to have that. I tell everyone, “Get a lot of home movies.”
I do talk to Steve. And in case anyone thinks I’m completely crazy, I haven’t heard him answer yet. I talk to him out loud. I write him letters. It’s quite therapeutic. For 14 years Steve and I made decisions together. So it’s very natural to sit down and say, “This is what I’m thinking; what do you think?” and then to imagine what he would say. I think if I hadn’t met Steve, I would never have gotten married. So getting married again is not a consideration because I feel destiny brought Steve and I together. I felt he was my soulmate and that we’re together in this life and will be together in the next. I mean, good luck topping that!
My biggest personal challenge is being able to get up every morning and carry on without Steve. Getting dressed in the morning is sometimes hard. Robert’s 3rd birthday [on Dec. 1] was really hard. When Bindi and Robert go through their milestones, growing up, getting married and having their own children, I imagine those will be really bittersweet. But Steve and I planned so much for the future that I still have a lot of direction for us. I can remember saying to Steve, “What are we going to do when Robert’s a teenager? A teenage boy!” And Steve said, “I tell you what: Just keep him alive and he’ll come through the other side.” He showed me not to panic about every little thing.
For a lot of children the fantasy of singing and dancing onstage is something that’s only a dream. With Bindi it’s a reality, and if she loves it I’m going to do my best to cultivate it no matter what anybody says. It’s the same with Robert. I say to Robert, “What do you want to do?” And he says, “Jump crocs!” When Steve’s dad asked me, “How can I help?” I said, “You’re the one who taught Steve all of his croc work. I need you to show Robert how to tie good knots, and when Bindi is jumping those crocs she’s got to do it right!” Hopefully, I have enough of Steve in me to convey his passions to the children.
I’m pleased with how we’re dealing with it. One night at dinner Robert just piped up and said, “We are all a family.” And I said, “Yeah, we are still a family.”