Cover photo: Rolling Stone
I'd intended to write about a different topic today. But I can't stop thinking about Kobe and Gianna Bryant's untimely deaths yesterday, so I decided to explore why celebrity deaths hit us so hard and how we can use their deaths to live our own lives more fully.
Why are we so upset when a celebrity dies?
Before last night, I didn’t know much about Kobe Bryant. Sure, I knew he was a famous basketball player, but I couldn’t tell you his team, his stats, or whether he was still playing. Yet I felt gut-punched when I read the early reports that Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash yesterday along with his 13-year old daughter Gianna and 7 others. Why? Was it because he was 8 years younger than me (so young)? The cruelty of his daughter perishing alongside him, just as she entered adolescence? Imagining mother and wife Vanessa reeling from her unimaginable double loss? Was it the randomness of the accident? Or the fact that fame and fortune can’t protect us from tragedy?
I felt myself getting sucked into a grief reaction I didn’t understand. I felt the same way when 2 other celebrities I knew little about-- Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade--committed suicide within 3 weeks of each other in June 2018, and when Prince was found dead in Paisley Park in 2016. And on and on...
Where were you when____ died?
Marilyn Monroe. JFK. John Lennon. Kurt Cobain. Prince. John McCain. David Bowie. Toni Morrison....You likely remember feeling upset about the deaths of certain artists, politicians, and public figures. Why is that? Some of the deceased had lived long lives, others were cut down in the prime of life.
What they all have in common is serving as markers of time in our lives.
I was 27 when, on a hot summer morning, I learned that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash in Paris at age 36. For those too young to remember her, Diana's story was a real-life fairy tale that transfixed millions around the world. Diana Spencer transformed from a kindergarten teacher into “The People’s Princess” and future Queen of England.
I was 11 and one of the 750 million people watching Diana’s televised wedding to Prince Charles in 1981. Shy yet glamorous, every weekly issue of People Magazine (this was pre-social media and 24-hour news cycle) featured pictures and stories about Diana’s clothes, her high jinks with other royal wives, her abuse by the Queen, and her important work with AIDS patients and landmine removal. I studied her hair, her smile, her love of crudités. I was obsessed. We all were.
We celebrated when Princes William and Harry were born. My best friend Megan and I giddily enjoyed scones and clotted cream at Kensington Palace, Diana’s London residence (in the public café, of course. No, we didn’t get to see her). We were pissed off by Charles’ aloofness and the cruelty of the tabloids. Her pale face so sad in pictures. So we were happy to eventually see Diana enjoying herself, finally relaxed and smiling again after a nasty divorce.
Then in a moment she was snuffed out in a gruesome car accident. 2.5 billion people watched her funeral. The image of young William and Harry slowly walking behind their mother’s casket is seared in my memory (as a kid I couldn’t fathom my mother dying). Billions mourned a woman they had never met, one who fascinated them, with whom they connected with on an emotional level. We were bereft.
My adolescence and early adulthood were defined by Diana’s fame arc. Her death reminded me that life isn’t fair, that young kids lose their mothers, that my life wasn’t special if someone as iconic as Princess Diana could die so easily. I matured that day.
Celebrities Help Shape Our Lives
Music provides the soundtrack to our lives. Eleanor Rigby (riding in the back seat of a rusty ‘73 Beetle as a little kid. No seatbelt, natch), Stayin’ Alive (living room dance parties with my mom), Stairway to Heaven (slow dancing in 7th grade), Tom Sawyer (my first kiss), Smooth Operator (losing my virginity. I know). Hearing those songs now takes me right back to those moments. I laugh, I cringe, I remember.
Films also figure prominently into our development. I remember where Star Wars thrilled me (Montreal), Silence of the Lambs scared me (San Diego) and Top Gun made me realize I was attracted to blondes AND brunettes (Burlington, Vermont).
Both on and off the playing field, athletes inspire us with their athletic talent, sportsmanship, and discipline. Many reinvent themselves following retirement, entering a second chapter of service and philanthropy.
Kobe was just entering this phase. Considered one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, after retiring in 2016, he partnered with the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club and Nike to create the Mamba League, a youth basketball league providing free basketball to hundreds of kids. Who knows how else Kobe might have improved the world?
I also read about accusations of sexual assault and a settlement, and how he rebranded himself Black Mamba afterward. And I worked to reconcile my anger about famous men abusing their power with the tender pictures of Kobe and Gianna. That hurt my brain, so I turned back to diagnosing my grief reaction and it came to me:
Of course we are upset when celebrities die. They are finally relatable. They aren’t immortal, they aren’t perfect. They are brain and bone, muscle and guts, just like us. They remind us that no one lives forever. They hold a mortality mirror up to our faces. Part of our personal history dies with them. We mourn their deaths, and we think about all we love that we will one day lose. Cue the existential crisis.
Death is Final
This is the crux of it. Writers, politicians, musicians, actors, creators, scientists...the loss of beloved public figures is so...final. Even in tech. Love or hate the polarizing Apple CEO Steve Jobs, he was the creative visionary behind the paradigm-changing Apple product line. When Jobs died, Apple lost its relentless drive for category-creating innovation. It hasn't recovered.
Death is final. No more sensual Prince songs. No more sublime Toni Morrison writings. No more Princess Leia Organa (well, almost. CGI Carrie Fisher lives on).
Whether we follow a celebrity closely or not, their name is part of the fabric of our reality.
Stop Being A Zombie
Even if you believe in reincarnation, I think we can all agree that we only live one life at a time.
We spend our childhood and adolescence dreaming of what our lives will be like. Will we be famous? Rich? Will we help others, make art, discover the cure for cancer?
All too soon we are out of high school, and reality sets in. Life isn’t as glamorous as we thought it would be. The electric bill needs to be paid, toilet paper bought. Before we know it, we are working too many hours in a job that isn’t world-changing, going through the motions. Suddenly we’re 40, then 50...60. Where did the time go?
The older we get, the faster life seems to pass by. This phenomenon is real, and neuroscientists dub it the “holiday paradox.” Our brain processes and encodes new experiences in a way that makes our perception of that time feel longer. As we get older and live more habitual lives with fewer novel experiences, our sense of time changes, and days blend into weeks, months, and years. Now we feel it’s “too late” to do the things we once dreamed of. But that’s BS, because of course we can, if we decide it's important enough.
Channel your grief into living a more meaningful life
The Stronghold of Fear
Fear prevents most of us from changing our lives. We get comfortable with our salary, our benefits, our homes, cars, toys, clothes. We may be unhappy with our relationship, but we don’t want to rock the boat. We stay together for the kids, for the status, for appearances. We postpone change and joy because we figure we’ve got 80+ years to walk the planet. We stay in a job that sucks our soul because we don’t know how to say goodbye, to start over. We’re afraid we missed our chance, that we’re too old to learn something new. We’re afraid of failure.
Celebrity Deaths Provide Opportunity
Like the death of someone close to us, the untimely death of a celebrity is a pattern disruptor. Our senses are jangled. That which is familiar, that we take for granted, is suddenly, irrevocably gone. When we hear their name, their song, watch them in a film, we are reminded that we, too, have a limited amount of time on this earth.
This is a gift.
Around the world 153,000 people won’t wake up tomorrow (UN data, 2017). A few are famous, most are not. Some will die from heart disease, cancer, and other diseases. Some will die in an accident. In the US, accidents are the #3 cause of all deaths. 466 people die in accidents every day in the US (CDC data, 2017). Yesterday, Kobe, Gianna, and the 7 other people on that helicopter were 9 of them. Tomorrow it could be you or someone you love.
So what are you waiting for?
Cut back your work hours.
Spend time with your kids.
Have lunch with a dear friend.
Call your mom.
Learn a language.
Visit a National Park.
Look for ways to spend less money so you can have more time flexibility.
How do you want to live your remaining days? Create that life now.
Make meaning from senselessness
The world is a stressful place right now. Some of us retreat into what’s comfortable, numbing ourselves with entertainment, substances, purchases...distracting ourselves from tensions in the Middle East, Australian bush fires, and climate change. I understand, I sometimes do that too.
However, I ask that you consider how Kobe and Gianna might have felt upon waking yesterday morning had they known it would be their last day alive? How would you feel?
I’d tell my family and close friends how much I love them. I’d hold them tightly. I’d look deeply into my dog’s eyes and thank her for her unconditional love and companionship. I wouldn’t worry about my cellulite. I wouldn’t think about the promotion and title I now won’t get. I’d look at the trees, listen to the birds, deeply breathe the outside air. Feel alive.
What Kobe’s death taught me
I think I now get why we are so thrown by celebrity deaths.
Celebrities mark different chapters of our lives--with music, in film, in sports, politics, and art. Their deaths remind us of our mortality, of what might have been. Even if we didn’t know much about them, when someone our age or younger dies, it’s a cold reminder of our limited time. And freak accidents illustrate how tenuous life really is.
We have the opportunity to be fully present in our one life every day. Don’t squander yours.