It’s happened again. Another celebrity has died, and I find myself feeling very sad over the loss of Alan Rickman, just as I did over David Bowie a few days ago. And I’m not alone, not by a long shot. Search either of their names on Twitter and you’ll see literally millions of tweets about how much their art meant to people who never met them. It’s become the thing now to mourn dead celebrities on social media, but even before that, we still did it. (The above photo shows me that I tried to find a way to do it when I was 8 years old.) We still went to work or school or stood on the curb with our neighbors and said, “Can you believe it? I didn’t even know he was sick. I always loved his movies.” Why do we all do this?
I’ve been thinking about grief a lot this week, which also marked the seventh anniversary of the death of a friend and teacher of mine, whom I wrote about last year. I dedicated my first book to him. The grief I felt the day of that loss was immense, and it made sense. He was someone I had sat in a classroom with for many hours over the course of seminary, shared meals with, traveled overseas with, an encourager and mentor, someone who personally knew and loved me. What I felt upon hearing of the death of Alan Rickman was small by comparison, but it is grief, and it is real. I’ve cried many tears today reading tributes from other actors who knew him in real life. I didn’t know him. I have no experience of him in person.
The same is true of more actors, singers, authors, filmmakers, and others whose deaths made enough of an impact on me that I still remember where I was when I heard they were gone. In a way it feels silly and selfish, an insult to the family and friends who truly knew and loved them. But my grief, our grief, doesn’t take anything away from theirs. Our grief is different. My grief is not for the person I never knew, but for the importance their work had in my life, how it changed me, how memories of my past are forever tied to those people because of that.
I never knew them in real life, but I know who they are to me. David Bowie is “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” and his other 80s hits heard on radios on the beach at Martins Fork Lake when I swam there as a child every summer. He is me watching my brother and cousins dance like him and Mick Jagger as they watched the video for “Dancing in the Streets.” He is the endless number of times my friend Rachel and I have gone back and forth with “You remind me of the babe,” “What babe?” and so forth. Ziggy Stardust and the Goblin King and all the other Bowie incarnations made me feel being weird wasn’t such a bad thing, that maybe it was even cool. Alan Rickman is my friend Candy and I watching the VHS tape of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves over and over again, and sometimes threatening my brother that I would cut his heart out with a spoon. He is everything I learned about grief in Truly, Madly, Deeply. He is me sitting on the floor of a college dorm room watching Sense and Sensibility, promising myself that I would never be so distracted by a flashy Willoughby that I missed the true affections of a Colonel Brandon. He is all the friends who sat with me in darkened movie theaters on two continents and several states over the course of a decade as we watched the saga of Harry Potter, and Severus Snape, unfold.
And there are so many others. Sally Ride is my childhood dreams of being an astronaut, and the summer I finally went to Space Camp. Whitney Houston is the feeling of being so grown up as I used my allowance to buy a cassette tape for the very first time, and singing in the shower with tears in my eyes, trying despite the bullies at school to love myself, because she said that was “The Greatest Love of All.” Jim Henson is everything I learned from Sesame Street, and going to see The Muppets Take Manhattan with my grandparents in Ohio, and believing that the lovers and dreamers can change the world. And Robin Williams – oh God, Robin Williams – he is so many things. He’s the rainbow Mork suspenders I wore to kindergarten, and hoping so hard to someday have a teacher who would make me want to stand on a desk and shout, “O Captain, my Captain!” He’s the sadness I always sensed just behind the smile that I recognized in myself as well. And oh how I wish he wasn’t the reminder of the pain suicide leaves behind, but he does help me remember it when those ideations creep back into my head.
As Disney’s Inside Out showed so literally and so beautifully, all those memories of mine have now been touched by Sadness. Because all these deaths, I know what they mean. They mean that the child I was when I made all those memories is gone forever, and that the woman I am now won’t last either. Whenever a death touches my life, it’s another nod toward my own mortality. I know that sounds morbid, but every experience of grief is a sort of practice session for THE great loss we each face – our own death. I don’t know whether it will make it any easier when it’s my turn to die, but it’s somehow a little comforting to know all these great people have done so before me. I’m grateful for their impact on my life, even from a distance. And as long as I’m still here, I pray that my life and my art might end up being part of someone else’s memories, too.