An uncle of mine, whom I was not close to, passed away a few days before Michael Jackson’s death. Guess why I wore black and sobbed that week. I’d been listening to this man’s music my entire life and he was integral to some of my earliest, happiest childhood memories. Simply put, he had a bigger role in my life than someone with whom I shared blood. That doesn’t mean that my reactions to the two deaths wouldn’t have offended my mother to the core if she had been around me to see the disparity in grief. I understand why she would feel that way, but I also accept my feelings with no shame.
When news of the tragic-if not at all surprising-death of Amy Winehouse hit, the typical post-celebrity death grief acts played out on the internet*. There were true fans who were devastated, halfway fans who may have been surprised by their level of sadness, those who instructed mourners to care about more “significant” tragedies (such as the terrorist attack in Oslo, Norway) and the callous souls who decided to make an internet name for themselves by telling jokes. Le sigh.
Celebrity death is a curious thing; some people are quite naturally compelled to grieve for people they have never met because of the attachment they have forged to their artwork or public persona, while others are horrified to see that fame makes one woman’s death more important than another’s. Why? Our culture is celebrity obsessed. Many of us will read tabloids and blogs detailing the lives (and deaths) of even those famous people they don’t like or who make music, films and television appearances that they don’t even support. This is problematic, not because we feel too attached to people we don’t know, but because many of us concern ourselves with mindless gossip in lieu of following important news. Thus, I understand the frustrations of those who didn’t agree with Winehouse’s death making bigger headlines in certain media than the Norway tragedy.
However, we cannot deny people the right to grieve a death, any death. The conversation about deemphasizing our celebrity obsession should not be forced when someone is hurting. Instead of attempting to shame people in to refocusing their priorities in the light of a celebrity passing, we should try and figure out what can be learned from it. Winehouse’s life and demise provide a sad, brief narrative about the reality of addiction; people laughed at her dirty ballet shoes and her crackhead behavior or sang along to “Rehab” and attempted to make light of the fact that this woman was dying before our eyes. We have friends, neighbors and family members who may be suffering from addiction and depression in the same way and must use this as a reminder that we can’t count on our ability to help someone tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come.
The difference between Amy Winehouse and Amy who died on Stony Island Avenue may simply be that you had fond feelings regarding the former or had followed her story for some time. Winehouse may have sang the tune that got you through your first breakup or, perhaps, the one you and your bestie used to rock to freshman year. It’s okay to feel bad that she’s gone.
Be mindful not to disrespect the lives of those who pass without obtaining the level of notoriety that yields a massive outpouring of sadness, just as we ask others to respect the mourning period despite their distaste for celebrity. Don’t feel guilty for feeling hurt, nor feel like you are required to be down if the passing didn’t really effect you.