The Nature of Public Grief
Who gets to mourn for celebrities?
As the nation mourns Kobe Bryant, I am as sad as I am when any celebrity dies, which is to say “sad but not sad in the way a personal friend would be.”
When Prince died, I listened to all of his songs on repeat for days – but I didn’t cry. When Robin Williams died, I was upset, but my daily life wasn’t affected. When Princess Diana died, I was shocked and saddened – and then ultimately annoyed by the inescapable coverage.
I’m not anti-celebrity, and I’m not judging anyone who does truly grieve the death of someone they never knew but nevertheless felt close to. David Bowie didn’t change my life, but if he changed yours, that’s great, and if you were deeply sad when he died, I’m sorry.
Social media has made this ritual of celebrity deaths almost performative, but I don’t mean that as a bad thing, really. Reading about what Carrie Fisher meant to my friends made me understand them better. The same is true of what George Michael meant to many of my gay friends – I didn’t learn more about George Michael; I learned more about them. And that’s valuable.
In 2016, the year that took a lot of our favorite famous people from us, journalist Caroline Framke wrote about this exact phenomenon, grieving people we’ve never met, saying that we may not have known them but they helped us know ourselves.
Brendan O’Neill took an opposite approach: “[W]hatever they’re feeling for Bowie, it isn’t grief. I can perfectly understand why fans are crying over Bowie. He meant a great deal to a lot of people. Hell, I’m not the world’s biggest Bowie fan and even I got a bit choked when they played ‘Heroes’ during News at 10’s tribute to him. But your tears, your tribute-paying tweets, your re-playing of old Bowie albums, your real feelings of sadness at the passing of a pop hero — none of that is grief. Grief is something else entirely.”
I see both sides, although I also very clearly remember seeing a Tweet by my now-husband – years before he actually became my husband – that said, “Michael Jackson’s death did not affect my life. You know what affected my life? My brother’s death at age 17.”
That is grief, for sure, and it gave me insight into the kind of man Robert is, and ultimately made me fall at least a little bit in love with him right then and there.
People came out of the woodwork to cry for Jim, and I remember at one point shaking my head and muttering, “They never even saw him in the sunshine.”
These were nightlife friends, club friends, drinking buddies. I knew that side of Jim, but I also saw him lift his daughter up on his shoulders at a Mardi Gras parade. I drove him to Target to buy khakis. We took pictures of our daughters, their lips stained red from sno-balls.
Grief isn’t a contest, but I still felt like I had known him better and had somehow lost more.
He wasn’t a celebrity, but this, I guess, is what I mean about how I feel re: the way we mourn celebrity deaths: We don’t really know them.
But even though I didn’t know them, not even in the way I knew of Kobe Bryant, what I can’t stop thinking about is the kids who also died in the tragic crash.
I can’t imagine being a famous basketball player or even being friends with a famous basketball player. But I know a lot of 13-year-old girls – and they’re all so wonderful. As I wrote a month or so ago, 13 is a magical age, terrific and terrible all at once.
They’re starting to get really good at things. They’re starting to develop passions and hobbies that they will carry into adulthood. They have relationships with friends and teachers that don’t involve you; they are old enough to be trusted with many but not all things. They’re fiercely independent but still want to snuggle when they get sick. They know so much about the way the world works, and yet they’re still achingly naïve. For all the warnings I’ve gotten about how awful 13-year-old girls are, in many ways, it’s my favorite age yet.
As an American, I might be vaguely sad about any given celebrity death … but as a mom, hearing about the death of any child, especially when the child is close in age to my own, I suddenly feel the gut-clench of universal sorrow.
I didn’t cry for Bowie or Prince. I didn’t cry for Luke Perry or Carrie Fisher. I’m not crying for Kobe.
But then I think about the kids, and suddenly I’m tearing up and rushing home to hug my own kids and pray they stay safe forever.
Celebrity deaths may not teach me anything about myself, but being a mother has taught me damn near everything about the person I am now.