People die. Old people. Young people. Sick people. Healthy people. We all know that it is coming, no matter how we try to avoid it. Naturally, we mourn for those we know personally and for those who have touched our lives. But, from time to time, we also mourn for those whom we have never met. Some deaths affect us more profoundly than others.
I can’t explain the hows or whys of it, but certain celebrity deaths really took a toll on me. Every time I hear of someone’s passing, I pause, offering a moment of silence that is usually followed with a heartfelt, “Man, that sucks.” Other times, though, I can’t stop thinking about it. I am in a general state of disbelief. You might find me glued to the television hoping for a news update that can make me come to terms with the loss. I don’t understand it myself.
I remember how my mother would be sad whenever a celebrity from her younger years would die. “I can’t believe it,” she’d say. My knee-jerk response being, “Why can’t you believe it? The guy was in his 80s. He’s lived his life.” Insensitive? You bet. I just couldn’t see being that broken up about a person you’d never met, but whom you knew was either really, really old or who had long suffered from some illness. You knew it was coming, surely you had prepared yourself for the news on some level, right? I mean, some celebrities are ticking time bombs when it comes to their drug use, no matter what their age. Add to that the ones who were extremely obese (and more than likely still abusing drugs). Though tragic and sad, their deaths were not “shocking” to me.
Still, there are certain deaths that put me into a fragile mental state. I begin contemplating death and dying. I feel a piece of my childhood slip away, especially if the celebrity in question is of a similar age. I find myself teetering on a precipice of total depression and anxiety. The reasons are inexplicable, yet my heart just breaks.
I was 3.5 years old when Elvis Presley died; too young to comprehend such a loss, but old enough to be able to say that I was around when Elvis died. My first real encounter with celebrity loss came when I was 7 years old. John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his home in NYC. I couldn’t have been as overwhelmed and shocked as everyone else, but I felt the pain. I watched the news over and over. I knew who he was. He was a Beatle. I was being raised in a musical household and the Beatles were ever present. Never mind the fact that at that age, I had no idea that the Beatles had been broken up for years. All I knew was John Lennon and his music. And I knew that he was gone forever. And that frightened me. He was a “celebrity” yet someone was able to do him harm. The world very quickly became a very scary place to me.
That fear would only continue over the years as I, like everyone else, was exposed to more and more death. There are a few in particular that, for lack of a better term, scarred me for life:
- River Phoenix–I was a Stand By Me kid. Age-wise, he was a peer. I couldn’t comprehend this loss, at all. Still can’t.
- Brandon Lee–He had only done a handful of films and was on his way to stardom. His death, and the haunting release of the Crow, messed me up for some time.
- Heath Ledger–Unlike some other people, I did not feel that his death made him suddenly Oscar worthy, but it did take me some time to recover from this one.
- Kurt Cobain–I had known too many people who took their own lives. This was a “rising star”, a young man, a father. What in life could possibly be so bad that a shotgun is the only answer? What a waste.
- Natasha Richardson–On vacation with family taking a ski lesson. One minute you’re alive. The next, gone. And Liam Neeson is left to carry your casket in front of the children, much like he does in the film Love Actually. Proof, yet again, that no one’s time on earth is guaranteed.
- Christopher Reeve–Okay, yes, he was sick for years. Patrick Swayze was sick for years, and I was sad when he died, but not like this. This was Superman. My superman. Crap…I’m going to cry just trying to type this.
- Michael Jackson–Whitney Huston’s death did not upset me. I thought it was sad, but then moved on. Jackson’s death, however, I didn’t see coming. Insult to injury were the throngs of “journalists” commenting on his genius, blah blah blah…these same vultures who had made careers out of dehumanizing the man and never supporting him in any way. It’s sad that it took his dying for people to stop judging him for five minutes and appreciate the body of work and mark that he left on the world.
- John Ritter–I’ll never forget that morning. Our television would turn on HLN as an alarm to wake us up. It turned on right as they were announcing Ritter had passed. I was wrecked. I was still crying the next day when the news of Johnny Cash came in. I argued with mom on this one, about which was more tragic. I wept for days. Days.
- Michael Clarke Duncan–I still cannot believe that this gentle giant is gone…..
And now, we can add to the list James Gandolfini. I may never again watch Where the Wild Things Are.
Like I said, I don’t know why some deaths affect me more than others. My nephew and I play this game–it’s a sick game, I’ll admit it–whenever one of us gets news of a celebrity death, we text the other one to a) try to be the first one to announce it to the other, and b) try to be the first one to make an entirely inappropriate joke using references to their work [for example: Donna Summer (…had her Last Dance); Sherman Hemsley (…he’s movin’ on up); Whitney Huston (…from Bodyguard to body bag) and so on] Hey…I warned you it was inappropriate. We justify it, I think, because laughter is usually the only way to make sense of and survive a situation. It’s not because we don’t respect them or mourn for them or feel sorry for the loss experienced by their family and friends. We absolutely do. We just need to “react” in our own way, I guess. When I go, I hope that many jokes will be made about me. Have at it. Roast away. Just remember the good along with the bad, please.
I was at work this evening, reading a trivia question about the Sopranos, actually, when one of my patrons yelled out, “May he rest in peace.” I yelled back into the microphone, “Tony Soprano didn’t die. They played the Journey song and it went to black.” Immediately random people started chiming in, “No! He did!” “He did die!” “He had a heart attack in Italy!” “We heard about an hour ago” I stood there, feeling like an idiot, in utter disbelief. Naturally, I opened my mouth, “Oh my god, seriously? I can’t even…An hour ago? What was I doing an hour ago? I was sitting in here, eating pizza. Oh, how ironic.” Which, of course was met by groans, “too soon”s , and at least one “you’re going to hell”. I meant no disrespect. I was just shocked. And nervous. When I’m nervous, I try to be funny. It doesn’t always work, at least, not for whomever I’m speaking to. Like right now. And I’m such a hypocrite that an hour later, I threw a “too soon” at a friend who made a joke about it on Twitter. I suck.
Can you tell I’m bothered by this news? It’s after 1:00am and I’m just rambling on and on in a blog because I don’t know what else to do. I’m afraid to try and sleep because I know I’m about a half-step away from a panic attack (I have an irrational fear of death and dying). And if I do manage to fall asleep, I’ll surely have nightmares. It’s a cycle I know all too well.
My heart is aching for his children, his wife, his family, his friends. His untimely passing is, again, a reminder that no one’s time is guaranteed. Not one minute. And for someone who has been fighting and living with a deadly disease since birth, it makes it difficult to not feel a sense of “survivor’s guilt”. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of this–who lives, who dies, who suffers, who thrives. But, like I told someone just the other day, you play the cards you’re dealt, and you do it with a smile on your face because there is always something to be grateful for. (Excuse me while I go weep for a little bit)
Live every moment. Make it count. No regrets. Tell them you love them.
Learning to thrive while we survive…