Whenever an extraordinary outpouring of grief follows a celebrity’s death, I always suspect something more is going on. We haven’t seen anything like the response to Michael Jackson’s demise since Princess Diana died in 1997. Hard to believe it’s been 12 years. Here’s what I wrote at the time, and, despite the differing circumstances, my hypothesis still applies:
Unlike, apparently, the rest of the known universe, I found myself largely unaffected by the news of Princess Di’s death. I know that sounds hard-hearted, but I never bought into Diana Spencer’s fairy tale.
Princess Di has joined the first family of dead celebrities: The King (Elvis), The Chairman (Frank Sinatra), The Rebel (James Dean), and The Bombshell (Marilyn Monroe) [Add The Thriller (Michael Jackson)].
Our pantheon of idolatry. We now have a dead princess to worship.
That may sound a tad cynical and insensitive, but I’m not the one with the problem. I didn’t get up at 4 a.m. last Saturday to watch the funeral of a rich girl from England who made a very, very bad career move 16 years earlier. I didn’t attend memorial services in Chicago at a church I’d never been to for a person I’ve never met and never cared to meet. I didn’t wait in long lines at the British Consulate to lay flowers and sign a condolence book.
Yes, it’s a sad story. But I’ll bet I can find 10 sadder stories for you every week on the West Side of Chicago, maybe even right here in Oak Park and River Forest. Diana Spencer’s story is sad, but it’s not tragic. Tragedy should be reserved for something important, and in the overall scheme of things, the trials and tribulations of the British royal family are relatively unimportant.
The fact is, there are other things we should be grieving. The death of loved ones, for example, but we also need to grieve the end of childhood – our own and our kids’. We need to grieve for lapsed friendships and the death of dreams, for summers that end too soon and communities we must move away from. There are so many small deaths in life that require our grief.
Only we don’t grieve. We store it up, sublimate, demonstrate our maturity by putting it all behind us. We dishonor the skins we shed, the chapters we close, by failing to properly mourn them. We are determined to ignore the sadness of life because we’re afraid if we ever acknowledged it, the grief might never stop.
Instead, we reserve our grief for people we’ve never met. My hypothesis is that this outrageous outpouring isn’t about Diana [or Michael]. It says more about our need to mourn – shared grief being so much easier than grieving alone.
People “loved” Diana because she embodied the princess archetype. In all of us, I think, there is a strong desire to live a fairy tale life. Sooner than later, we are all disabused of that illusion, some more painfully than others. Diana, at first, looked like she just might be able to pull it off, so a lot of people lived her fairy tale vicariously. The hold such fantasies have on the human psyche remains surprisingly strong.
The current grief orgy is not just a response to the unraveling of her fairy tale. It also gives us an opportunity to mourn the end of our own.
The worst thing you can say about this sorry saga is that so many of us seem to require a dead princess [or in Michael Jackson’s case, a dead Peter Pan] in order to grieve.
That’s the real tragedy.