In the last week, two very well known artists passed away – David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Both were 69 and both passed away after a private battle with cancer. The death of both these men struck me hard, my grief visible not only on my face in the days afterwards, but also in my letters to each of them that I chose to publish on INWORDSANDINK, to share my deep regard for these extremely talented individuals.
But, as much as the world mourned these men, commentators and social media trolls brought up the question once again – are we allowed to be upset over the deaths of people we didn’t know?
I personally have mourned the death of ‘celebrities’ (a term that I feel uncomfortable using when referring to these particular people), especially in the last few years. I have been deeply upset over the passing of people such as Mickey Rooney, Robin Williams, Edward Hermann, and now most recently David Bowie and Alan Rickman. I openly grieved for these people, cried for them, felt my heart go heavy at the news of their passing. Most of my idols had already passed on before I was aware of how much they meant to me (Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, Andy Warhol and many other artists and creatives), but these people had been such a significant part of my growing up that I couldn’t help but mourn them.
When Robin Williams died, it felt as though I had lost a family member. Like I was saying goodbye to a kooky uncle who had always made me smile and had taught me so much. To this day, I still weep at the end of Dead Poets Society when the students farewell their beloved teacher. “O Captain, my Captain” and I feel as though I am saying goodbye all over again. I smile through my tears and thank him for what he taught me, what he made me feel.
And yet, despite all my grief, I felt bad. Guilty almost. As though I was somehow claiming a right to mourn him that didn’t belong to me. Surely this grief belonged to his family, to his closest friends, and not to me. I was betraying the true feeling of their grief by feeling as I did.
Sure I didn’t know him, but wasn’t my grief valid as well?
With the news of the loss of an artist or celebrity, comes not only a mass wave of grief over their fans and audience, but also a swarm of scepticism. Did you really value them and their work, or are you just playing along with the grief? How can you say this when you didn’t know them? These (rather vocal) people tell us we have no right to mourn this death, that it is not ours to grieve.
I think they are wrong.
Whilst we did not know these people personally, we did know them. We knew them through their artistry, through their work. We knew them as the faces and voices we grew up with. As the people who made us smile and laugh and cry. As the people who taught us valuable life lessons through their particular crafts. These people were special to us in their own particular way.
The brilliant men I mentioned earlier were a tremendous part of my childhood. Upon Alan Rickman’s death, my good friend Nabila had this to say about losing childhood heroes:
“There comes a point in everyone’s life when they realise they’re getting older, and it happens when the people who made their childhood very special begin to move on and pass away.”
For me, this moment has only really hit home a few times, with the death of very special people.
When I saw Night At The Museum 3, a few months after the passing of both Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams, I felt my heart break. When they both made their appearances onscreen, I could feel my cheeks wet with tears. My old childhood friends were right there and yet out of reach. When Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt said his final goodbyes, I blubbered like a baby.
When I finally pluck up the courage to watch Harry Potter again, I’ll likely weep when Alan Rickman makes his entrance, and even more so when he leaves the screen for the final time. I can’t bring myself to say goodbye to him just yet.
Occasionally, in a moment of strange silence or awe, I turn to my mother and ask her:
“What are we going to do when (Helen Mirren/Judi Dench/Merryl Streep/Betty White/David Attenbourough/Jeremy Irons/Ian McKellan/Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke/George Clooney etc) dies?”
Because one day, I won’t have to ask her. I’ll know exactly what I’m doing when this happens, because one day I am going to hear the news that another of my long-term idols or childhood friends has left us. And I’ll mourn them, because I’ll miss them.
It is okay to be sad when these people die. It is okay to cry, to mourn, to grieve. Because although we never met them, they were special to us, the people we surrounded ourselves with in moments of darkness and light.
That’s why I write letters for them. I want to thank them for making me feel the way I do when they are gone. I want to thank them for touching my heart and affecting me so deeply.
Anyone who tells us we have no right to feel this way isn’t hurting us, or our feelings, but instead the memory of the person who we mourn. Because they are saying that these people didn’t make a difference, didn’t make a profound impact on our lives.
And oh, didn’t they make such an impact on our lives.
© Hayley New 2016
Read Nabila’s clever and heartfelt tribute to Alan Rickman here.