Ed, Farrah, Michael, Billy (Mays) and soon, Walter: we mourn the deaths of these celebrities as if they are old friends or family. In the midst of the latest round of grieving, it occurs to some of us to ask how it is that we take so personally the passing of people we don’t really know.
I have some experience with what I call “public death”: my husband was a 9/11 victim and although he wasn’t a cultural icon in the “traditional” sense, he surely became something symbolic to large numbers of strangers. His name was listed at hundreds of memorials, on billboards, on websites, even on the side of a charter bus I saw. He was remembered in speeches and articles, sometimes specifically by name, though he was simply a back-office worker who was doing his job. Members of an Atlanta church “adopted” my husband as a victim for whom they would pray; so did a group of schoolchildren in Germany. I heard from people who used to know Jim, my husband, or barely knew him, or never knew him. All felt the loss terribly and personally.
Of course 9/11 was a tragedy of gigantic proportions and involved an unexpected attack that threatened us all. In fact, tragic deaths, whether they involve tsunamis or high school shootings are terrifying because they are so random. We feel the need to respond, reach out, and relate to each other.
Really, though any death is random, when you think about it; that’s what really frightens us, I imagine. Even when we’re expecting it and think we’re prepared for it, it feels sudden and it certainly feels final. And when we’re not prepared, it shoves our own morality right in front of us. Cultural icons that die often represent or recall a particular and perhaps more innocent or happier time and in mourning them, we mourn our own life losses.
That may explain why we seem to pick certain people to mourn and not others. Do we relate more to the loss of a pop star or TV fantasy than we do to starving children aroud the world? I hope not; I suspect it’s a question of scale and familiarity. That doesn’t make it right.
There’s one more thing and that is that we humans seem to need to participate in the (for lack of a better word) pageantry of a public mourning process. Perhaps we find immersing ourselves in the deaths of others is cathartic; a “safe” way to mourn for ourselves. As I noted in an op-ed piece I wrote after the Virginia Tech shootings, our involvement can veer dangerously into a sort of collective therapy session that becomes more about our need to comfort ourselves than about comforting or empathizing with others.
This is all perfectly understandable. I do wish we could find a way to avoid the spectacle that accompanies dying in public (although something tells me celebrities might appreciate the posthumous attention). I’d like to see us instead go silent a minute. In the space that opens up, we can send out our thoughts and prayers for those who are gone and quietly contemplate our shared humanity.