2016 is probably NOT the worst year on record for “deaths of famous people.” Baby Boomers – the largest segment of the population – are of an age where the celebrities and older people who meant something special to us during our “formative years” are dying. They were older than we were, remember; it was inevitable. We thought they’d live forever, because they were larger than life and seemed – when we were young – to be just barely older than we were. Now, we’re facing our own mortality, too – or that of our own parents and grandparents – and we are fighting it tooth and nail. It didn’t seem quite real when we were children; it certainly wasn’t commonplace.
I still remember the day I learned that Louis Jourdan was already old – technically old enough to be my grandfather– after I’d just “met” him as a “handsome young man” in GiGi and felt my heart flutter.
To those who wonder why people mourn the deaths of celebrities and people they’ve never met, I can only offer theories:
First, as John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
This is why, though I didn’t exactly “mourn” bin Laden’s death, I felt sad – a bit deflated – to know that so many people could rejoice, celebrate, and dance on a man’s grave. Let’s not remember him as anything but the villain that he was; but let’s not be villains, ourselves, in our glee. He was some woman’s child – some mother’s precious baby boy – and there must have been a time when he was innocent, happy, and full of future promise. It’s the loss of all that which diminishes humanity, one villain at a time.
Second, as with any death but that of a child with a lifetime of unrealized potential and joys, we mourn our own losses. We’ll hear nothing new from the deceased, there will be no more art or music or words from their pen, no more movies in which they will bring a fictional character to life, no more grand, pioneering space adventures for them to share with us and we can only revisit them in memory. When so many die in a short time, it feels like “the end of an era.”
Third, they meant something to us – something that is perhaps only symbolic and very personal, intertwined with memories that have almost nothing to do with them. “They sang the hit song that played in the background, the first time I kissed my husband,” or “That movie they were in was playing when my wife went into labor with our first child.” Maybe something they said or did inspired us to reach farther, try harder, or consider a career we hadn’t thought of before they made us think of it. In a way, they have become the shortcut that triggers those memories, and their death now becomes associated with the memories in some bittersweet way – reminding us that all things, good and bad, must naturally come to an end.
Fifth, there are people who yearn to be among the first to break the news or share the gossip. This, too, is a natural human tendency – after all, without new news to offer up, the conversation gets a little stale. Isn’t this the problem with our 24/7 news cycle? Always “time to market,” no time for thoughtful reflection, consideration, fact-checking, and asking, “Is this really something I need to share or talk about?”
But I do think the first through third points are the ones we should assume of people, until we can no longer give them benefit of the doubt. And no matter what triggers people’s emotions, we do well to remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, and no timetable for what’s “normal” or “acceptable” when it comes to being sad over a loss.
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