Whatever floats your boat...
It’s an odd thing to mourn the passing of a public figure. I’m not referring to the “saddened to learn of their passing” kind of sentiment, but the kicked-in-the-gut misery of grief that’s usually reserved for the loss of those we knew and loved. It seems somehow inappropriate to truly grieve for people we didn’t know—but knew of. There really isn’t a name for this variety of grief nor any social convention for comforting those experiencing it.
I’ve been deeply mourning the loss of the writer Sue Grafton for the last four days. I have not grieved like this for the loss of a public figure since John Lennon died. In fact, John received a measure of grief in my heart that was equal to the grief I have experienced for personal friends. I grieved for a long time for him and I expect I will experience the same for Sue Grafton.
Both of these artists touched me deeply. Many other artists have touched me deeply too, people whose passing saddened me. But John Lennon and Sue Grafton shared the capture of my perpetual interest in them—until each of them died, I was always looking forward to what they might do next, how they were going to touch me next. Both of them simply got better and better at what they did. Other artists have touched me only for a time in my life and then my interest moved on. John Lennon and Sue Grafton spoke to me each in their way and never stopped speaking until death interrupted them.
John Lennon moved a whole generation of people and when he died, nearly everyone I knew was experiencing the same grief I was. It was a great balm to share that grief. But John Lennon became a public figure when fame was a more homogenized phenomenon. Literally every American my age knows of him. Since his time, fame has become more esoteric and as stratified as a point of bandwidth. Not all readers have heard of Sue Grafton, not even all mystery readers, even though she is considered a titan of the genre. To many people the mystery genre seems a trifling and superficial entertainment, even when compared to pop music, so to admit to anyone that my heart is aching because a mystery writer passed away sounds downright loopy.
But here’s the ache of it: public figures touch other people’s lives, often in profound, direct, and personal ways. Sue Grafton, for instance, got to crawl around in my head for the last 35 years and plant characters and vistas and new insights in me. But with public figures, we non-public folks don’t touch them back, except in the indirect way of helping to provide their livelihood. It’s a one-way communication for which, when we’ve been profoundly moved, we can hardly provide thanks. There is a twisted loneliness inherent in that, the kind of loneliness that could be assuaged a bit by sharing one’s grief.
If only admitting to such a grief weren’t so damned loopy.
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