In a week when the world has mourned the loss of two great stars in the form of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about death and how we respond to it. That’s partly thanks to having an evening of curate training at a funeral directors, and a death in the parish, as well as my own response to the celebrity deaths.
Bowie’s death was (obviously) unexpected and a shock, but I’m really the wrong generation for true Bowie affection. However, I was rather surprised by my reaction – a need to listen to his music and hear as much as I could about him – which resulted in listening to BBC 6 Music’s fantastic response en route to work. Bowie was a phenomenal talent and most people expected it to last forever. Like a few other friends, I felt like I needed to learn more about the man, his music and other creative outlets, having previously always known he was there in the background. Now he wasn’t, there was a lifetime of work to catch up on. [Apart from the obvious: Labyrinth and pretty much most of his greatest hits.]
Interestingly, the overwhelming public response to this untimely death resulted in something of a backlash against such shows of grief. Camilla Long [The Times’ journalist that my friend Rich considers to be my doppelgänger] suggested that such displays of grief on social media were insincere and that those involved should “man up”. But why? Don’t we (particularly the British population) already have a reputation of stifling emotions in an unhealthy way?
The display of mourning in Brixton. (Credit)
In actual fact, up to a certain point, such displays of grief isn’t just natural, it’s beneficial. On the one hand, it’s completely justifiable to be grief-stricken for someone you never met or knew personally. When someone touches our lives through art, music, acting or writing, we feel a loss when it’s no longer there. In losing a person from this earth, we have genuinely lost something from our lives. Another facet of this grief is almost a kind of practice run for when grief hits us hard in the future. That’s not to say that the grief for a celebrity is a lesser grief, it’s just that it enables people to feel and experience emotions that they may not have felt before, and means that when a family-member or someone similarly close to them dies, they have a reference point for some of what they are feeling. Finally, it can act as a reminder of previous losses, triggering elements of the grieving process again. This is not a bad thing either. No matter how long has passed, moments of grief are still completely natural and even necessary. It’s bottling up those emotions that can lead to trouble…
These were thoughts I was composing in my head en route to a curate study day yesterday. In fact, I even thought that I might get chance to jot them down during the seminar – which I did not, because it turned out to be very interesting and useful! The last 15 minutes of the session were obliterated however, when this flashed up on my phone:
My gasp may have been audible. There was eye contact with a fellow curate as I tried to convey the terrible news. Tweets were tweeted, a Facebook post composed, all in a sense of utter disbelief. I had not loved Bowie, but I had loved Rickman. I know exactly when it began – with this Texas video from 2000 – specifically, the moment when Spiteri and Rickman tango across the forecourt of a petrol station. Yes, by this point I would have already seen Sense & Sensibility, but this was what launched Alan Rickman into being one of my all-time favourite leading men. [I went into my favourite Rickman moments in this post from back in 2010 – which in the comments sparked a little debate regarding his allure. The refusenik was wrong!!]
Texas – In Demand. (Once seen it has to be repeated – according to those who saw it for the first time yesterday courtesy of my sharing!)
I don’t need to tell you how amazing Rickman was. I know I’m not alone in having sobbed my way through Truly, Madly, Deeply (I can vividly remember watching it for the first time and my father declaring it a soppy mess). The discerning Harry Potter fan knows that Rickman as Snape brought more to the role that could ever have been imagined – largely thanks to JK Rowling’s insight into who Snape really was. His humour. His presence. His voice. Oh, his voice! As I write, I’m watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and with a mournful sigh, I noted that this voice appears for the first time at exactly 15:06 minutes in. That voice.
Yesterday, I was grieved that I would never see Rickman perform live. I would never hear that sonorous voice in the flesh. I would never get to have a conversation with him. (I know the latter is a far-fetched notion, but I have friends who have!) There are only a few unseen films left to watch before there are no more of them. The thought is a hard one to comprehend.
Chatting with a one-time classmate (and fellow Wittertainee) after our training, I found myself nearly bursting into tears at the emotion of it all – and he felt the same. I walked my favourite walk back from college, through Green Park and sat on a bench and let the tears flow. It wasn’t entirely Rickman grief, I know that, it was a heady combo of emotion; tiredness from a very busy, over-full ‘part-time’ week at work; pent up emotions about other things that needed letting out; and, interestingly, a recurrence of mourning someone else.
Yesterday, I also made the mistake of reading Emma Thompson’s goodbye to Rickman while I was on the tube. There’s nothing like tube tears for a very public display of emotion!!
That last one was a surprise, despite being well aware of the fact that I have long associated Rickman with my one-time landlady Angela – because we both loved him, but she got to meet him (and get a photo with him) at the Love Actually premiere. Every Christmas, when I do my ritual viewing of a film that I love dearly (although I know that view is controversial), I remember Angela. It’s not surprising his death prompted those thoughts, especially as they both – as did Bowie – died from the same disease.
Today, I tramped across the mud of Hampstead Heath, thoughts still very much on a Rickman-grieving plain, sorting out my head and getting some much needed downtime. [Side-note: I was in the area for physio on my special feet, but generally if I make a pilgrimage up to Hampstead, it’s for thinking purposes.] I pondered this question of grief some more…
We, as a nation and as a society, are generally rubbish at grief. It goes hand-in-hand with being a nation known to withhold emotion and affection. Public displays of grief (as long as they don’t get ridiculously out of hand) are a good thing, a healthy thing in fact. We need to have outlets to express our grief and social media is perfect for this – especially as it can be a place for solidarity, of grieving together. On Wednesday, our morning prayer group shared memories and prayers of thanksgiving for the life of the parishioner who had died. On Thursday (and today) I shared memories of favourite Rickman moments on social media. Both are good, healthy and necessary!
We don’t like to talk about death. It is feared and not understood. Perhaps if we were as honest in our feelings as people have been this week, society would find itself in a much healthier place in its attitudes towards death, grief and loss.