Yesterday morning it was announced that British actor Alan Rickman had passed away from cancer. At the very beginning of this week it was revealed that musician David Bowie has suffered the same fate. As social media was filled with mournful statuses and 140 character eulogies I couldn’t help but be drawn back to a post I wrote almost three and a half years ago called “Celebrity Mortality and Actual Loss”.
In it I drew a comparison between Michael Clarke Duncan, and other such famous people who had died within the past month or so, and my grandmother, who breathed her last in the ICU of a Toronto hospital just the day before. When rereading it in preparation for this post it was impossible to ignore the bitterness that lay right beneath the surface, the pain still so fresh from the loss I had just experienced.
It’s been a while since then, long enough for the years to dull the hurt and extinguish any anger I might have once felt towards a world that appeared to haphazardly allocate its sorrow. Now, years later, my Facebook feed filled with dozens of Ground Controls hailing Major Tom, I find myself on the opposite side of the spectrum, feet terrifyingly close to being planted firmly in indifference.
Which, understandably, makes it look like I’m not doing so hot on the scale of emotional maturity.
I had every intention after the break [there’s a “Continue reading →” after the last paragraph if you came across this on our homepage] to clarify my stance and assure readers that I do in fact feel some measure of sadness over the loss of these two men. That I’m not some heartless automaton. After a few minutes of self-reflection, however, I found that I couldn’t do it. With Bowie in particular, who has had little to no effect on my life personally, I was unable to dredge up any legitimate sorrow. No more than the standard pang of grief when hearing that anyone at all has died, the split-second wish of “it only that hadn’t happened.”
What is important to note, though, is that I do get it. In September 2012 I was mourning with my family for my grandmother, borderline slighted by the idea that there might be those that dared approach that emotion when it came to people they had never met before. At the outset of 2016 I can say with confidence that while I can’t personally relate, it makes sense to me.
One friend on Facebook eulogized Bowie by thanking him for teaching them “about self expression, high-level androgyny, freedom, and always always always being yourself.” Much more powerfully, I can remember when Robin Williams decided to take his own life, and the way it affected someone else I knew. They described at length how the comedian had profoundly impacted their life, and for months afterwards continued to thoughtfully remember the man and all he had done through a rewatching of his entire filmography.
It was actually Alan Rickman himself who said–
“Actors are agents of change. A film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world.”
-and even before having written all of the above I can’t disagree. Art touches people, and moreover any actions you perform and put out into the world can and does affect those in it.
The question I want to answer has never once been “Should I be sad about ______?” I’ve done all I can in writing for and editing this blog to not outright tell people what they should or shouldn’t think, instead presenting the facts and hoping that they’ll be all the direction needed. It’s that much farther away from my mind for me, or anyone else on the site, tell you what to feel. Instead, the question I think we should be asking ourselves is “Why am I sad about ______?”
When Bernie Mac was unable to survive complications from pneumonia I was bummed, because he was a funny actor and I’d liked him in what few movies and TV shows I’d seen him in. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose I was upset, not because it was yet another life taken by illegal narcotics but for the three young children he had left behind. When Brian Jacques and Terry Pratchett passed away I was remorseful over the fact that no more novels would be set in the Mossflower Woods and on Discworld, respectively.
Whatever the reason, and some will be much stronger than others, we will feel emotions over the men and women who, while personally unknown by us, had an effect on our lives. It’s in times like these that it’s good to remember that a) that effect never has to cease-
-and b) exactly why and how it is that we’re grieving. Yes, even years after my grandmother’s death I’m still struck by the way we as a culture approach celebrity mortality. In general the way we use the internet has made it very easy to send thoughts, emotions, and ideas out into the public with just a handful of swipes on a smartphone, but how does news that Lemmy of Motörhead died last December compare to what’s elicited by a photograph of an actual drowned child? How are we choosing to react?
That’s especially compelling in light of a news cycle that, alongside coverage of Bowie and Rickman’s deaths, is also reporting that a little over a dozen passengers were recently killed in a ski tour bus crash in Japan. We’re forced to deal with the concept of mortality every single day, but it’s really only when that life is attached to a famous face that we end up doing or saying anything about it. In traversing culture we are forcing ourselves to find out what we think and feel about a hundred different ideas and pictures and news stories every minute, but maybe we should slow time down when it comes to death.
Everyone should be able to feel what they need to in order to come to terms with loss, which is essentially what someone dying is. At the end of the day, however, it would be nice if we were able to reflect on the people who are gone and if they even meant anything to us. Are the words we’re speaking and writing a eulogy, or just hopping onto whatever’s trending at the time?