Tag Archives: grief

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 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.

Six months in

Soon it will be six months since the man I knew killed himself. I find that hard to believe. That a measurable chunk of time has passed. For me though, it has passed quickly. Life has kept me relatively occupied in that time frame.

I say his name, his first name, aloud. I don’t know if I think I am saying it to him or to myself. I want him to hear me. I don’t believe he does. I want him to know that I gave a shit that he is dead. I want him to be here pissing me off with his online diatribes and vitriolic rants. I want him to be here writing those posts full of puns that irritated me and made me roll my eyes. I want him to be here riding his bike around town and playing tennis, a more recent pastime, on the courts with his friends. I want him to be here laughing loudly and easily, being the pied-piper that he was at the center of a group, regaling them with stories and opinions. I just want him to be here.

Tough, right?

His suicide is a bitter, bitter pill.

One of his favorite topics was crime. He was a bit obsessed with crime in our community. He’d write these long things where he’d attempt to prove that our immediate community was one of, if not THE most crime-ridden place in the country. He’d pull out statistics and numbers. He’d say that we were all blind and in denial to the hotbed of criminal activity surrounding us. He thought it was his job to “wake up” the sleepy citizens. Is there crime here? Yes, there is. I don’t like it. But I don’t feel as endangered as he wanted people to feel. I don’t think his assessments were altogether accurate and I am CERTAIN they were informed by his own prejudices and personal experience.

I never understand if this was such a god-awful place to be why he didn’t just move away? To a nice, peaceful burg where fawns frolicked in the woodlands (oh wait we have that) and nobody ever did anything bad. Of course no such place exists. What did he want from us? What did he want? What did he want?

Isn’t that what I wonder about him generally? What did he want? He was just so damned relentless. Where an average person would have said, about any given topic, it’s time to give this a rest, that’s when he said it’s time to kick this into another gear. I saw him as the man in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, who in a battle, has been shed of all his limbs, and is now just a torso on the ground, still taunting his opponents, calling them cowards, telling them to come back and fight, threatening to gnaw on their legs. That was the man I knew.

He was such a big ball of intense energy that I just can’t quite grasp that all that energy is gone. Just gone. And this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been through deaths, through grief; I am well-versed in the disbelief, the searching behaviors, all that stuff. But people about whom I’d say they are “larger than life” are not so common.

I read years ago that dealing with the deaths of people who you had difficult relationships with is the hardest. Convoluted in life, convoluted in death (those are my words). My feelings are not clean and tidy. The shock I felt the morning I learned what he had done – shot himself in the head in the center of town – has worn down some. But a shock of that size takes time to resolve itself. There is the fact that he’s dead and there is the fact of how he did it.

I don’t cry now. I just think. Reflect. Go about my life.

A bad day in March

He would be really, really mad about me writing this. That’s why it’s taken a little time to do so. I mean, I’ve tried, already, more than once, to get something down on paper so to speak. But I hesitate. And then I examine my hesitations. Yeah, he’d be pissed. And do I have any right? Some right? Do I have any business saying I knew something about him? Do I have a right to claim I had insight into him? He would tell you NO. But is his opinion the only one that matters here? Don’t I have a claim on my experience? And my version of said? Good lord, these are the kinds of things that have been going through my mind for two and half months.

In March, on what had been an unusually warm day which had turned into an almost balmy night, the kind of pre-Spring day that gets your hopes up, he went out alone at about 2am to the center of town, a mile from where I live, and fired off two shots from a gun, which ultimately summoned the local police. On their arrival, he shot himself in the head. Dead.

He’d planned it. He’d planned it and had then gone about the regular business of his life in the days leading up to it. His financial situation had worsened. He wasn’t working except for little gigs. He’d decided in mid life, after losing a newspaper job (print media being what it is now), to go back to school for a Master’s in a new field. He was in grad school on loans evidently without simultaneously holding some kind of job. I often speculated about how he could afford to do that – (he seemed to have an awful lot of free time) – especially as a single person and a homeowner. Well, turns out, he couldn’t. His plan, to land a relevant, high-paying job soon after finishing grad school (and pay off his student loans) hadn’t materialized. So he was very in debt, behind in his mortgage, you get the picture. Add to this a recent breakup with a woman he’d been seeing for at least the previous year.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t have options or people willing to lend a hand. People, and he knew a lot of them, were helping him. Storing his belongings, talking to him, looking for job leads, offering small paying gigs. Hell, even I, as frugal/poor as I am and as mixed in my opinion of him, would have ponied up cash for a month of his mortgage if it meant preventing his death. I can tell you I’m sure five other people would have too, buying 6 months, and maybe even eleven other people would have, buying a year. Had we known what he was planning.

But I didn’t know he was in severe financial straits and quite depressed because I’d gone out of my way to distance myself from him. It was months since I’d even seen him anywhere and frankly I didn’t want to. I was not involved, not at all and his death blindsided me. No matter what else I thought, I’d have never taken him for a person who’d kill himself. My grief was immediate and intense.

So what you ask? Why is this particular guy worth writing about? Lots of people have troubles. In fact, there’s been a rise in suicides of men of his description: white, middle-aged, with financial problems. This guy I knew, privileged by many measures, made himself into a statistic.

I want to tell you about this man because this man was here, this man lived. If you’d met him, you’d remember it. He was larger than life, like a movie character. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman would have played him in the story of his life. He did everything over the top. Moderation had not met him. He was a big man who did things big. He was smart, really smart. Educated. Loved to write. Quick. Playful. Analytical. A people person. A man of appetites; food, sex, drink, who knows what else. Witty. Informed. Opinionated. Dug in. Involved. God help me, charismatic. When he walked into a room or situation, he brought this presence that said, “I’m here, the party can start now.” And he wasn’t wrong or not entirely wrong. He was also angry. Mean-spirited. Vicious even. Calculating. Lacked a sense of fair play. Cowardly in that he used online forums to vent his nastiest diatribes. Petty. Had twisty attitudes about race. Ruled by his indulgences. Self-involved. Cagey. Immature. Grandiose.

He’d be livid both that I thought those things of him, and more so that I’ve written them for anyone to read. Especially since he can’t respond. His personality is so big that even dead, he influences me. I mean isn’t what I say about him a character assassination? Who’d want to be described that way? And more to the point, he couldn’t stand anybody seeing him too deeply. He doled himself out in bits & pieces, controlling his image. He kept many relationships superficial or somewhat superficial. That’s what I think.

Nobody like him wants somebody like me looking too closely at them. Holding them to higher standards, taking them to task, and steering clear of their usual line of seduction or b.s. He was attracted to me which altered our in-person encounters, especially how he acted around me (and not for the better). His usual inclination was women of color (let me redirect your attention back to twisty attitudes about race; he also ranted endlessly online about black men committing crime in the community) but I knew – and I say it wryly – that he’d make an exception in my case. I also saw in very short order, disappointing as it was at the time – and it was – that this wasn’t somebody I should have in my life. In any capacity. He was smart but I was smarter. I remember thinking very specifically that I was staying half a step ahead of him. It was important to. Allowing myself to be sucked into the vortex of his personality was not in my interest.

I initially “met” him online; many in the community who knew his name – he had quite a reputation – never actually knew him in person. He ruled online. He’d started a forum, the first of its kind here, which had become the main place of local discussion. This group even influenced local elections (not to everyone’s pleasure). He was a big fish in a little pool and lorded it over people. He used his group ruthlessly on a regular basis. Oh, he didn’t see it that way, despite being called out on it repeatedly by lots of people. He claimed he was fostering rigorous intellectual discussions and other horseshit like that. He described himself without irony as an outside observer, local watchdog and innovator, among other terms.

He held no office, no official position yet perceived of himself as a real mover and shaker. He made a long list of enemies by pillorying people and mixing into areas where he really had no business or even necessarily familiarity. It was all like a game to him and that really steamed me. That is, the way he treated people, like we – the community – were maleable pieces for his amusement. I sensed he wasn’t really invested in this particular town and didn’t especially love it; that he’d have acted the same way anywhere he might have landed. I remember thinking he could pick up and move away without much thought. I almost figured he would.

Despite dishing some of his unpleasantness my way online – in times after it was clear he wasn’t going to make any personal headway with me offline – he continued to like me in his own strange fashion, forgetting apparently that he’d given me cause not to feel the same. For him it was a drop in the ocean – and besides, I mostly stayed out of his rants and online arguments and largely fell off his radar. But I still took real issue with how needlessly nasty he was. It got very, very old. He never seemed to understand that people remembered his online attacks and took them quite personally, reasonably so, or that there might be repercussions.

And he got angrier in the last several years. The rants uglier. I stopped reading what he wrote. He was becoming a quite bitter fellow. Who evidently felt the world hadn’t delivered what he was owed. And that most local people he was dealing with, especially online were naive, uninformed idiots who needed to be told so. If only they’d listen to his obviously superior wisdom. That is, the more unhappy he was in his life, the more he took it out on other people, dressed up as political debates and discussion about community issues. That’s my take. People peeled away from the group, even starting a community Facebook group that became ultimately became bigger and more relevant.

It all seems like such a waste to me. And I really hate waste. He had tons to give, he really did. If he’d redirected some of that energy to more positive and/or useful pursuits. But clearly he was a man who felt he was out of options. Or that the options he had were unpalatable. Unpalatable to the point of not being able to live with them. From where I’m standing, it looks like he gave up too soon. Obviously he didn’t think so. Who knows what was in his mind in those hours between midnight and dawn. I’d love to know. I want to be there and say don’t do it. Yeah, you piss me off but we need you here. I need you here.

This man brought color and life and vigor to our community. It wasn’t all good, granted. But without him, the color drained away. I will never, ever think oh fine, he’s gone and taken all that trouble-making with him. No. He made things more interesting. God love him, he stirred that pot. Ferociously. Remorselessly. The thing was that he was NOT a crackpot, whatever else you might say about him; he couldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Enough of what he said was relevant and on point; he DID get people talking. That’s a huge thing that set him apart.

He mattered to me. Even when I wanted no part of him, he was important to me. That’s very clear. I’ll never forget him. I never knew anybody else quite like him. I wish he was here. I’m sorry, no, devastated, that he killed himself. That he thought he had to. He left real heartbreak behind him.

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]

Cumulative loss

Loss comes with familiar, bad feelings, sickening feelings: Oh yes, I remember this. I hate this. Waking in the night unsettled, knowing something is wrong. And then remembering what that is. I’ve long felt grief is doled out in pieces in this way because it would be too overwhelming all at once.

In a person’s life, one loss can bleed into another till it seems as if there’s a backlog, an accumulated weight that must be dragged around. I wonder sometimes at the resiliency of the elderly who must have known so much loss of all stripes. Do they ever feel, “No, that’s just one too many? No more? Not this one?”

The alternative – shutting down, refusing to care or to love or to be moved or become invested – isn’t an appealing one. And for a lot of us, it’s an impossibility. You ask you yourself: Is it worth it? Is it worth it? For me, so far, the answer comes back, yes.