Tag Archives: death

Grieving for famous people you’ve never met (Part 2)

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 in2014 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.

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Grief calls

Grief sucks.

I’ve thought that since the first time I encountered it and I am going to go right on thinking that.

Grief makes the world over in shades of grey, all the color drains out. Oh, in reality the color is still there, being seen by others, and waiting for you, I get that. It’s a perspective thing. It still sucks.

I wouldn’t say I’m an “old hand” at grief, but we have met several times. I know the drill. Or my drill anyway; I know how I respond. I don’t resist grief. For whatever reason, from the first time I went through it, I took that approach. I’m going to feel this, I’m going to go wherever it takes me. Like it or not.

I don’t apologize when I’m grieving. Generally people don’t want me to be down – I’ve gotten that reaction since I was a teenager – but who is happy and jolly all the time? I mean sincerely happy and jolly. In life, I laugh and smile a lot. I make a lot of smart remarks and quips. I look for the humor. Not forcing it, but like Dudley Moore said in Arthur, “sometimes I just think funny thoughts.” But when I grieve, things just aren’t all that funny. And I accept that.

Processing a death takes time, so that ultimately when it’s done, the loss is woven into who I am. I have to absorb it, so it becomes part of my essence. The losses I’ve had are not all lumped together. I see them individually and each finds a place to take up residence permanently.

I’ve never met anyone who resisted grief and didn’t pay for it in some (other) fashion. Grief always wants the check paid. It doesn’t really care how. Grief essentially says you can choose to deal with this directly OR indirectly, but you will deal with it; I’m not going anywhere, friend.

Some people start or ramp up drinking or drugging. Others leap into emotional or sexual entanglements to provide distraction and distance. Some double down in “keeping busy.” Some simply try to convince themselves the loss just isn’t that great and life can go on as before more or less. [I do know people attribute having a job to go to daily or a pet or children that need to be taken care of, as what saved them in grief and kept them going. The distinction I see here is that those are positive, life-affirming responses or at least neutral ones, not self-destructive by design.]

I can think of two times in my life I consciously “postponed” grief because I simply couldn’t handle it at the time. In one instance, I was already grieving a monumental loss and had no room in my psyche to take on a secondary loss. I knew later I would. Another time I was dealing with a big problem that left me drained and stressed out and I resisted truly knowing about the death. I gave myself permission to not know, and to not wholly feel it then. I have to admit those two particular losses don’t feel as “clean”, like a surgery that wasn’t performed correctly the first time.

There’s something else I want to say about this. If bereaved people enjoy a moment or laugh at something, they can feel it’s a betrayal or an indication that they really don’t feel all that badly about the death, and maybe others will think they are “over it.” I so disagree. What I’m describing is different from wholesale attempts at escaping, bypassing, or otherwise tricking grief. Having little moments is a coping mechanism and it provides hope. Grieving people need hope so that they can regain traction and move on with their life, which is not over. Life takes the living with it: “You’re coming with me.” And anyway, in bereavement, happy moments are just that – moments – and grief will be there waiting, ever so patiently. I always say you don’t have to force yourself to feel bad; you will soon enough.

Not long ago I read somewhere that grief might even be considered a form of mental illness. I can sort of see that. I’ve always been obsessive in grief, but that’s the way I’m wired up. I THINK my way through things as I’m feeling them. Obsessing over an issue helps me process. I have to look at it from every conceivable angle. In the case of loss, obsessing helps me believe it’s true. In the end that’s what I think the goal is after a death, to believe it really happened and to live with it.

Things Men Have Said to Me (#20)

He was, by his account, wild about me. We were talking about someone we knew who had died, and the topic of funerals generally.

HIM (not in jest): “If you died, I would take off work to go to the funeral.”

Commemorating fatal accidents = bad idea

In my community and elsewhere, plaques, paid for by family or friends, are sometimes permanently set up in public places where individuals have died, typically in accidents. There’s something about these markers that is bothersome to me. I can totally see commemorating locations where many people have died, such as battle fields, prison camps, or the grounds of the twin towers in NYC, for examples. I can also see the significance, perhaps, of marking the spot where a famous or historical person died. “Here is the house where such-and-so died.”

It’s not that I don’t understand the impetus behind family and friends wanting to commemorate the loss itself. They want their person to be remembered, and I imagine they think they’re honoring the dead person. The trouble is, when I come upon a plaque at the site of a death, instead of thinking kind thoughts about the diseased (who I almost certainly did not know), I begin thinking about the possible gruesome circumstances by which the person died. I don’t think that’s what anyone intends, but I can’t imagine what else might be intended; i.e. a sign at the site of a fatal crash or accident doesn’t make me think about improved safety regulations or driving more cautiously, or anything along those lines. I’m not really sure what’s accomplished by permanently noting the place of an accidental death. Does dwelling on the exact location even help the family and friends of the person?

Also — why should only certain people’s death sites be noted? I mean far and away most people’s are not and I’d have to think money would be a factor in at least some cases. In my own neighborhood, a man died on the street of a heart attack some years back. It was never marked in any way. (I temporarily marked it with a flower that was gone in a week.) For some time after, I’d look at the spot and think about the man, who I did not know, and think also of how that location must feel to his family, who lived in the immediate area.

I feel similarly about “Ghost Bike” installations. These are bicycles which have been painted white and are permanently installed at the site of a bicyclist’s death. I didn’t know quite what to make of these when I first became aware of them, but now, several years later, I think they simply make me uneasy. Again, because all they do is elicit unpleasant thoughts of the nature of the death. They don’t make me rally for improved bike safety or write my congressman to press for legislation that’ll make drivers and bicyclists coexist more peaceably. They’re creepy – maybe that’s the point? And I say this as a bicyclist myself. I’ve recently seen one set up in front of a residence, that is, not near traffic or roads, and I really don’t know what to think about that one.

In my community, to memorialize a death of any sort, people can “purchase” a tree, or even a park bench that’s installed in a public spot with a small plaque listing the diseased’s name and birth/death dates. Sometimes, it’ll also include a more personal touch like, “beloved father and husband” or “she loved gardening and walking.” A sweet one I saw included what must’ve been a common refrain by the diseased, something along the lines of, “Oh, how glorious!” I like these memorials – they contribute something to the community and make me stop and think, and not only about how someone died.

Short Thought 93 (loss)

When someone dies – maybe the more so when they are sick first and then die – and there’s all the stuff to do, with hospitals, funeral homes, church services, memorials, travel, lodgings, and luncheons, it can feel like time drags on and on and you might wish it would all just be over already. Later though, maybe months, maybe years, it seems like it all went by in a flash. Strange to be almost nostalgic for such unpleasant business but I think it’s because that’s the last time we were close to the diseased.

Short Thought 78 (dead people)

I know this happens to other people. Out of the corner of your eye you spot someone who you know is dead. When you stop and look again – which you must – it’s clear the person is someone else, a stranger. Much the same happens to me with the occasional voice. It sounds just like such-and-so, but of course it’s not. Here’s the thing, though. This happens with some people who’ve died and not others; that is, in my world certain people “turn up” in a phantom way, while others who’ve died, stay dead. I wonder what differentiates the two.

Grieving for famous people you’ve never met

When a public figure dies and people mourn and grieve, there are no doubt others who think (and probably say, given an opportunity), “What are you mourning for? You didn’t know the person,” and go on to question the validity of strangers acting bereaved over someone they never met. As someone who has been affected by several deaths of public personalities in my lifetime, I’ve considered this point and want to try to answer it.

In some cases, I’m sure there are people who have idealized the person who died and even felt as if they had a relationship with the deceased. There may be those too, who get “caught up” in the public outpouring of emotions. Still others may overreact because the death elicited feelings related to things occurring in their own life. People could also overreach in an attempt to draw personal meaning where little exists.

I feel pretty confident these thoughts don’t describe how I’ve felt or my own impetus to grieve. Instead, my sense of loss – and I’m sure this is true for so many – has stemmed from my deep appreciation for what a public person has given and I personally received. I have such gratitude for people who make me laugh, think, or feel; who introduce me to a new idea, teach me something useful, share their lives, give me music, stimulate my mind, make me feel hopeful, or even move me to tears. I don’t care who’s doing it, whether I know them in real life or not.

In fact, like most people, I don’t know any celebrities or public figures, but I can avail myself of their words, ideas and visions in books, on TV, in movies, on CDs, on stages, and online. I am made better for it and that’s been true all my life. I’m not suggesting one is as good as the next; as I do in my life, I respond to individuals.

When public people die, particularly when it seems unfair or premature or somehow otherwise wrong, in part my sadness is for them, driven by empathy, feeling that they deserved better. The empathy extends to the people who loved them, especially when they too are in the public eye. It equally reflects my sorrow at the loss of the pleasure I got from their existence. How they made my life just a bit, and sometimes a lot, better.

Then too, it’s possible to be caught unawares, whether you’ve literally known a person or not, by the magnitude of feeling at a particular death. Speculate away, but it is hard to truly know in advance exactly how any death will impact you. Harder still to know what direction it may come from next.

[I’ve written more on this topic here]