How We Grieve in the 21st Century: Grief, Death, and Pop Culture

“When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

-William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

 

The first weeks of 2016 have been heartbreaking for anyone who cares, even peripherally, about art, creation, and trend-setting.  We are 30 days into 2016 and things are looking very grim for this calendar year.  We still have eleven months left to contend with, plus an extra day because 2016 is a leap year.

Francisco X. Alarcon died a couple weeks ago.  His was the third reverberating and heart-wrenching death for me in what has been a very short year so far.  He was a poet and a very nice man.  His death came after a few weeks of bad news and at a time when I didn’t think things could get worse.  Since I started working on this piece, there have been more names to add, like Glenn Frey.

I am 35 years old and I find myself trying to be very brave these days. I’m trying to be okay with the next new experience, in the same way I had to be brave when I was a little girl starting kindergarten.  I’m finding that I’m not very good at being brave.

When I posted my hopes for 2016, I was very clear.  I didn’t realize that, four weeks later, several of the people I consider dear friends would be gone.

star of david

When my grandfather died three years ago, his youngest daughter, my Aunt, emailed the family to let us know he was gone.  Given the circumstances, it was probably the best form of communication.  He was 93 years old and had been ailing for some time.  We knew the hours were few and we knew that she had gone to say goodbye.  The email came across around dinner time.  I didn’t make any calls.  I didn’t reach out.  I responded to my aunt’s email and copied the family members that had been included in the original email.

I wrote, “Thank you.  I love you all very much.”

I had been throttled at the moment I received the email, even though I knew that news of my grandfather’s death was inevitable and on its way.  Still, I felt crumpled and paper-thin.  I just wanted to curl into ball. And yet, I didn’t call my cousins.  I didn’t even call my mother. I just suffered in the silence of incredible and private mourning.  I might have made myself tea.  I might have crawled into bed with my grief.  I don’t honestly remember what I said to my wife at that moment, who had never met grandfather.  I remember feeling so helpless and sad.  But I also remember doing absolutely nothing.  I remember not understanding what to do.  I remember that nothing felt somehow reasonable.

 

When David Bowie died, I had been up late writing.  I had put my phone on silent and had shut down all access to the internet.  When I laid down to go to sleep, I pulled up the browser on my phone to look something up and I saw the news of Bowie’s passing on my Facebook feed.  I shook my wife awake and told her what had happened. It seemed okay to wake her. I was sad and the person who had died was famous. She was still half-asleep and didn’t totally understand.  She could tell I was upset and put her arms around me.  I immediately felt bad for waking her because she had to get up for work just a few hours later.

After she had fallen back to sleep, I untangled myself from her arms and got out of bed to put myself in front of my computer to write my Bowie Heartbreak Blog.

At around two in the morning I saw that one of my dearest friends posted something on Facebook about Bowie’s passing. I sent her a text message at 2:23am that said, “I’m still up. If you just need to cry about it. Because I kind of need that too.”  The phone rang within seconds.

My friend and I spent the next two hours on the phone sobbing honestly and horrifically about David Bowie’s death.  We didn’t hold anything back.  We cried.  We cried loudly.  We cried ugly.  We coughed and choked between crying.  We said things about god and the universe that we didn’t mean.  We said things about music.  We talked about justice.  We concluded that the world is horrible and unfair.

It was honest and exhausting and I couldn’t get out of bed the next day.

Four days later, after I had started to recover a bit, after I had decided to put on a brave face, I awoke to a group text message between friends who had waited in line for Harry Potter’s Book 7. “Alan Rickman died. My heart hurts.”

I immediately fell back into a child-like and socially-unacceptable petulance.  Famous people, iconic people had died.  I was sad.  Several other people were also sad.  I sat awake in bed holding my copy of The Half-Blood Prince.

 

My generation may be the first generation where so much of our culture and familial identity is fiction.  And yet, our fiction is so vast and stretching that it is indeed real and tangible, soul crushing and penetrating.

If I try to say to a coworker, “My grandfather died.” I’m likely to be met with something like, “Dude that sucks.”  It’s an understanding but it’s a calculated response.

But if I say, “David Bowie died,” my friends and acquaintances might actually understand what I’m saying.  They might actually accept that what I’m expressing is about grieving and common interests, and human intersection.  Because that’s what pop culture is.  Popular and Cultural.  Meaning, all of us feel it and noticed its merit.  Even if weird. Or different. Or incomprehensible at the time.

It’s really hard for me to admit that my heart is broken and that I’m still hurting.  I don’t think of myself as star struck.

But, as we lose so many incredible people whose talents have touched us so wholly, I realize that my generation may be the first generation growing up in the way that I grew up.  My generation may be the first generation where so much of our culture is vast and stretching yet real and tangible, soul crushing and penetrating.  We have so much love for our well-known heroes.

 

But when it comes to our closest people, when it comes to those that matter so much, we have no protocol.  We have very little support.

grandma and grandpa

I wish I could look at random strangers with tears in my eyes and say, “My grandpa, Doc Morasch, was an amazing man and I miss him very much.”  And I wish that, in response, those strangers would put their arms around me and say, “I know.  He was a great man and great grandfather.  He played a mean clarinet and his sandwiches were out of this world.” I wish that were real.  I wish that every person who felt grief for someone they love could feel that kind of honest connection and response.

And I think that our connection for our fallen pop soldiers is our way of translating our grief. It‘s our way of making sense of something we need desperately.   If I say to friend that, “’Five years’ on vinyl was brilliant,” and they say, “I know.” It means we somehow understand each other.  It means that we have love in common.

We need to know that the people we love mattered.  And we all need to know that our love in this world matters.  Maybe our collective grief for our artists and heroes is our way of knowing.

Democracy Is Possible. It Requires Participation.

I have not been following any articles or trending topics on Facebook.  I haven’t clicked through to quotes and I haven’t watched sound-bites from news clips. In an effort to mitigate the falsehoods and focus on the truth about presidential politics, I have made a commitment to read only thoughtful material from credible sources.

I have done a lot of reading lately.  As such, I thought I’d be prepared for an SNL skit about a recent endorsement.

Not even close.  I watched the below SNL skit about the Sarah Palin endorsement of Donald J. Trump for president before watching the actual coverage.  I felt confused about the comedic choices and felt as though Tina Fey and the SNL writers had gone too far making fun of Sarah Palin, venturing into a terrible genre of making fun of the developmentally disabled.

And then I watched the actual endorsement that had taken place days prior.

After seeing the original and completely bizarre press conference from Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, it is obvious to me that Tina Fey’s parody was hilarious.  To be fair, however, words like crazy and retarded are unprogressive and they marginalize people.  These words aren’t good choices for comedy. Still, the skit was amazing:

For an incredible monologue and for additional commentary, please see this clip from Stephen Colbert. (I think he and his writing team deserve an Emmy for this. They reference both Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in almost the same breath.)

But let’s be fair.  All of this is fun and games until someone gets hurt.  This country voted for George W. Bush TWICE.  We, as a nation, voted for George W. Bush after he sent us into war for a lie.  In 2004, this country voted for George w. Bush over John Kerry by 34 electoral votes and by 3 million popular (the people) votes.

If this seems a bit daunting, or if the rest of the world is wondering about America’s ability to care, the Stephen Colbert video I posted to this blog already has more than 5 million views on Youtube in less than one week.  Democracy is possible.  It just requires participation.

If you are an American citizen, please register to vote.  Please.

And then go vote.

 

Dance Magic Dance

A part of me died tonight.  It took me by surprise. I had no idea how much I loved David Bowie until tonight when I found him gone.

David Bowie was the first person who ever made me feel like I had an identifiable sexuality or a specific gender identity. I will never forget the first time I watched Labyrinth and I will never forget how it made me feel. In hindsight, this is odd, because I’m a queer woman and, as a pre-pubescent teen in 1986 watching Labyrinth, it was really confusing to watch Jareth, The Goblin King, and his codpiece, and to think thoughts about something that I was fully too young to understand.

In the next few hours and days, there will be several news outlets and magazines that eulogize David Bowie.  They will talk about his incredible vocal capability.  And they will be right.  They will talk about his trend-setting fashion.  And they will be right.  There might be a few publications that mention Ziggy Stardust and the incredible bravery and ultimately revolutionary persona that David Bowie offered in that moment.  And hopefully they will understand how unbelievable he was, and how far ahead of his time he was in that moment.  But probably not.  In all likelihood Ziggy Stardust will be mentioned as a song on an album and not as a movement.

David Bowie was so sexy in his own right and so far ahead of his time in gender fluidity that it’s hard to look back on his career and pinpoint the moment when he became a symbol rather than an icon.  His sincerity met the expanse of his career and his genuine approach to artistry was so authentic that few people noticed the movement.  David Bowie will likely be remembered as an incredible songwriter and a beautiful popstar.

David Bowie positioned himself with such integrity that his death snuck up on us and his legacy might go without notice in the mainstream.

For me, he was my first love.  He was my first real crush.  And, as I got older, and started to understand a little better, I came to understand that he was my first real hero.

For me, and for many people like me, David Bowie wasn’t simply an incredible singer and song-writer.  He was a revolutionary who took gender non-conformity to new levels when gender non-conformity didn’t yet have a term.  He shook the world with his alter-ego in a way that will never be taken back.  He lived his life so extraordinarily that when he died tonight he took two very real people with him.

david bowie

Good night David Bowie.  And sweet dreams Ziggy Stardust.

We will never forget you.  Either of you.  And the people who knew you will ever forget your music.

I will miss you forever.  And I will never forget your advice:

Dance magic dance.

 

2015

2016

2015 was a happy and mostly uneventful year for my wife and I.  We enjoyed time with friends and family, though we would have liked to have had more of it.  There were a few births, a few weddings, and, for us, only a couple, and mostly distant deaths.

A couple of my old friends and I got together at the end of December to bake cookies and recount the year.  As I described 2015, I felt thankful that my worst moment was entirely trivial.  When asked to name my worst moment, I sheepishly listed a fight about the Christmas tree that my wife and I had had that week. It was stupid and unnecessary but it felt particularly important and awful at the time. (We had to move the tree because we flooded the tree stand and we needed to mop up the water.  It resulted in broken ornaments. It felt horrible but, ultimately, it was really dumb.)  We got over it.

This year, my best friend’s father and step-mother died within two weeks of each other in November. They visited in the fall and they were gone two months later.

I know that 20 years from now, if I were given the chance to relive a single year of my life, 2015 would probably be a very good choice, not for any overt joy, but rather, for the distinct lack of sorrow.

In 2015, my wife and I didn’t make a lot of money.  We paid the bills and never overdrew our checking account.  We didn’t get to travel to Europe or take any long vacations.  There were fun weekend excursions and a couple of really beautiful camping trips.  We didn’t get any new pets or have any children.  But none of our pets or loved ones had any major medical emergencies this year.

We didn’t get to do everything we wanted to this year.  We didn’t get to see every person we love.  But we got to do a hell of a lot.  And we got to hug a lot of people.  And I’m pretty sure that everyone whom we love knows that we love them, even if only in some small way.  And so, if I could choose to do 2015 over, I would.

As I look toward 2016, I have high hopes for a more exciting year but I feel very cautious about having high hopes.  I’d like to have a job that’s both meaningful and makes enough money to put away something towards savings. I’d like to plan a trip to Spain, something I’ve been dreaming of. My wife and I currently share a single car and our car is over 10 years old.  We’d like to get a newer, more reliable car.  I’d like to spend time with family and I’d like to make more time for friends.

But mostly, more than anything, I just want the people I love to be safe, happy, and healthy.