“Oh, Grammy, you’re too stubborn to die. Don’t talk like that”
Poor Grammy. She wants someone to listen, to empathize, to care. She may even want to prepare, it would comfort her. Grammy is facing reality, but she finds no takers. No one wants to think of her death, their own death, or death at all. One of the few things Grammy asks for is summarily dismissed as unimportant, even irritating.
One of the best characters in modern literature is that of Grandma Mazur in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. Grandma is a corker, and a total delight. She has lived most of her life in the old, middle class neighborhood. One of the main activities for her is attending the wakes of long time neighbors. She never misses a “viewing”, schedules her other activities around them, and spends all day getting ready to go. Her family just rolls their eyes when she talks about them. Only Stephanie takes her to them, often attending with her. Often with hilarious results.
But hidden in the fiction is a poignant reality. We tolerate our Old Ones, while denying them some of the emotional support they need.
Imagine their confusion, then, when we get publicly emotional over a celebrity’s death. We crave media coverage of every detail. We buy flowers to leave at a makeshift shrine. We cry. We express emotion. We mourn a total stranger. We light candles and commiserate at gatherings of more total strangers.
Many folks can tell you exactly what they were doing when they found out President Kennedy had been shot, when the Towers were attacked, how John Denver died, and who killed John Lennon. We dismiss drug overdoses while we speculate for weeks who the real father is of the child left behind, and his worthiness for the task. We’re appalled that, in this day and age of medical advances, a comedian can die of pneumonia in a major metropolitan hospital.
Grammy is not only confused, she’s bummed out. She’d like at least some of that attention.
Death used to be woven into the fabric of community life. But with population growth and epidemic diseases, changes came. Death was institutionalized out of necessity and safety, losing the personal aspect. Mourning was done en masse, usually in the context of religious rites.
The World Wars created their own set of issues for The Greatest Generation. Stoicism was the new order of the day. Every family had a loved one Over There, so you had to just keep a stiff upper lip. Your grief could be seen as hurtful to someone who had no body to bury, thus no neighbors coming to call. The only way people knew of a family’s grief was the small flag in the window, with a star in the middle. And when the color of the star changed, you knew what had happened. Media coverage amounted to not much more than statistics.
There was a huge cultural shift in the 60s and 70s. Emotions were strong, and readily displayed. Wars appeared in our living rooms. We no longer thought in terms of “troops”. They had names and faces. Liberation movements among minorities encouraged emotional honesty. Dr. Kubler-Ross started talking about death.
At the same time, church attendance was in a downward spiral, never to recover. Baby Boomers came of age, but redefined aging and one’s approach to it. We accepted Kubler-Ross’ concepts of end of life care, and the hospice movement took off. But a billion dollar industry would be created around Boomers’ desire to fend off that time with all their might and money.
As a result, death is a foreign concept today. It is anathema to most. An inconvenient truth, to be dealt with only when necessary.
One aspect of celebrity life is the total lack of privacy, and the public’s demand for details. We get to know them intimately, thus feeling ownership and familiarity. So when they die, we grieve. In the secular spirituality of flowers, candles and shrines, we find a makeshift community, of other fans. We find connection and empowerment, not available in most families. One would think this would transfer to family members that die, but for some reason it doesn’t.
One can only hope for another cultural shift, where the holy moment of a loved one’s death is again revered. It will take a reconnection of generations, honoring the Elders for their wisdom and experience, rather than pushing them aside. It will require Elders to stop creating exclusive communities that forbid the Youngsters from interacting. It will take