The longer you live the more people you will see die, people you know and people in the public light, both of which you may have known or known of, for decades. That’s just how it works. If you want to go on living and stay relatively sane, you have to have a way to accommodate that in your philosophy. I’m not going to say “acceptance” because the hell with acceptance. I don’t think you have to accept. Tolerate. You’ve got to tolerate. Because if you don’t the price is becoming a half-alive person living in the past, disengaged with current life, wallowing in emotional stew. Maybe drinking, leaning on pills, using drugs, or overeating. Maybe just hiding away in your home, avoiding others. Maybe becoming a bitter, unpleasant person.
I initially wrote Grieving for famous people you’ve never met in 2014 when Robin Williams died (6 months after Philip Seymour Hoffman died). That post gets regular hits from strangers. I feel a little guilty about that. As if I don’t have enough to tell them. I mean I’m not responsible for people, true, but if they were looking for something to help them when they felt hurt, I’m not sure arriving at my blog post was going to do the trick. This is how my mind works. I tend to feel responsible for other people, even strangers, certainly in a situation like this (people arriving at my blog because they are grieving the death of someone). Did I have anything to offer them? That post seems too short to me now, not complete. Like there is more to say. That is what brings me here.
Although it was Robin Williams’ death that spurred me to write that particular post, I didn’t name him because more often than not in this blog I try to write about themes. Even when there might be a specific story in my life or my head, what I want to do is burn away the dross and get to the essence, to a narrative that more people might relate to. My losses aren’t going to be your losses. But loss is general. Ain’t nobody getting away from it. That’s what binds us. That and loving other people. It doesn’t matter who.
I could list out the people in my life who’ve died, who left a wicked hole inside me that is always there, some larger than others. They web over like scar tissue but it’s never the same again. I could name also, the long, growing list of public people who’ve died and left me bereft as well. And the same holds true, some of these were tremendously painful, others not as much. I still miss public people – celebrities if you will, entertainers, famous people – dead for decades. You almost certainly have your own “lists” of people who occupy these same sorts of roles in your life.
The way I grieve for someone I knew versus someone I didn’t is not quite the same, for obvious reasons. But some of it remains the same, the preoccupation, the wanting to hold on, the renewed appreciation, the sadness – the degrees of which vary depending on what the person meant to me.
I want to say again, something I said in the initial post, which is the pain and sadness at a death stem from how much you got from the person in life. And I maintain that feeling is the same emotion whether you knew the person or not. Maybe it’s a little harder when you didn’t because you may be alone in your grief; there isn’t a built-in support system the way there often is when the death is someone you knew.
Here’s the thing. Here’s the takeaway. Grief means you got something. It means your life was enriched. If you’re sad or hurting it is because you loved, because you cared. Because somebody gave you something. Made your life better. (I’m not disallowing grief from painful relationships, twisted grief that doesn’t spring necessarily from pure, good dynamics between people, but talking about most of the time when it does. Moreover in the case of people we didn’t actually know, having a conflicted or difficult relationship isn’t going to be an issue.)
We grief for what we lose. In the case of public personalities, there won’t be any more coming from them. That’s it. Whatever they’ve done, it’s over. Maybe a movie will come out post-mortem, or a cobbled-together album, or even a book of lost writings. There will be tributes. But the gist of it is that whatever gifts they put out into the world, they no longer will. It’s over. If they still had promise, more that they hoped to do, that’s unfortunate. For them and for us.
The point is to do what these others have done. To do your own version of what put the public personalities once admired and now mourned, on the map. To put out into the world whatever it is you have to offer. To find something you do well – or well enough – and give it. That’s honoring dead people. Dead people who’ve touched our lives. Most of us will not win Grammies, or contribute to a winning Super Bowl team, or win a Nobel Prize, write a New York Times best seller, or star in an iconic film. But we can do our bit. Do something. Contribute something. I am convinced that is the penultimate takeaway.