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How we mourn celebrities we've never met

By Nathan BraunJanuary 4, 2017

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Perhaps it’s telling of the year we’ve just endured that the Internet’s “Fuck 2016” meme feels to have existed for an eternity already. This was the year that would not relent, pathologically stealing our most treasured heroes and icons. The final act of cruelty came in the side-by-side departures of Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds on consecutive days shortly after Christmas. While there are countless stories of celebrities and figures going before their time, in less than two weeks 2016 introduced itself as a different type of beast. For me, the blows that were these deaths didn’t seem to fade away like they used to as each fresh “Breaking News” alert only added to the hurts still aching. Watching these strangers leave us from a distance, I’m left to wonder why I and so many others grieve and how we move forward in these first days of our new year.
One reason the losses feel harder than ever may be found in the iconography. The first and most personally devastating loss for me was David Bowie’s death ten days into 2016. Buoyed by the release of his new album Blackstar and attending his new Off-Broadway play Lazarus, I had expected Bowie to keep reinventing his future while I played catch-up on the iterations that came before. Even the photos of the still devilishly handsome Starman jumping for joy taken just days before his death hardly resemble a man at the end of a long cancer battle. To put it plainly, Bowie couldn’t die because he was Bowie. Throughout this year these types of iconic images betrayed me. Prince, like Bowie, seemed too mystical to suffer a death like us mortals. Despite his battle with Parkinson’s, Muhammad Ali was always the Godly figure standing over the vanquished Sonny Liston to me. Whether it’s John Glenn in his space helmet or Gene Wilder somersaulting out of a chocolate factory, we often don’t have anything to go off of besides these images. The mundanity of their flesh and blood existences concealed by the passions and emotions they inspired in us.
Another factor in this grief is the connection afforded to us by technology. Not only has the rise of Twitter and Instagram given fans peaks into the personal lives of artists, they’ve offered a medium for all people to share their remembrances or artistic tributes. It now seems harder than ever before to ignore these deaths, forcing people to acknowledge a death’s impact they might have repressed in another era. At the same time, the rise of streaming and digital content has left it easier than ever to engage with the work these celebrities left behind. When Carrie Fisher passed, I impulsively indulged my sadness by watching her ferociously witty special Wishful Drinking on HBO Go. My mother set up a Spotify account last week just so she could listen to George Michael’s voice on demand. The texts left behind by Edward Albee or Elie Wiesel are just a few clicks away on Amazon. Because it’s easier than ever to access these contributions, it’s also easier to forget these icons have even left us. This in turn only makes it that much harder when I remember why I sought these works out in the first place.
But perhaps the simplest reason these deaths have caused such an impact is the personal memories we associate with these artists. For as much as I came to appreciate Edward Albee’s entire storied career, he will always be the man responsible for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play that helped me fall in love with drama. Many struggled with the loss of Fisher and Alan Rickman because their portrayals of Princess Leia and Severus Snape exposed them to characters and perspectives in their childhoods they might never have seen otherwise. One of the most common refrains in tributes to Bowie was how he taught so many kids that it wasn’t just okay to be different or strange, but that it could be endlessly cool. While most never got to share a true moment with these figures, it’s often their interactions with their work that they’re mourning, specifically that they will never experience this exact interaction again.
While these may or may not be the exact reasons 2016’s losses feel so painful, I return to my question from the beginning, how do we move forward? Well, the truth is there is no one answer. One of the quotes that’s stuck with me was something Sarah Silverman shared at the funeral of comedian Gary Shandling this past April. She discussed Shandling comforting her after her mother’s passing and sharing with her the Buddhist expression, “Grief, teach me what I have to learn.” Whether it’s someone you’ve known intimately or whose work has impacted you from afar, the pain of a death is an opportunity for growth if you allow yourself to engage with the sadness. By letting ourselves hurt over these icons, we have the opportunity to engage with and share the contributions they’ve left behind and maybe inspire the next generation if we’re lucky. It may not feel easy, but remembering the aches and struggles these individuals went through on their paths to achievement, I believe we owe it ourselves to try to grow as well.