It was still dark outside, and very early, when I heard the news that Prince had died. Nigel was getting up to start his day and checked his phone for messages. That’s what woke me up.
“How bizarre!” he said. Well, I think that’s what he said, because I wasn’t awake yet. I probably asked, “what is?”, and he said, “Prince died.” I probably said something like, “huh!” and went back to sleep, because it was still early. And that’s the perfectly ordinary way I found out.
A couple hours later, I was checking Facebook and there were a few mentions of it, but not a lot: That hour was still during the working day in the Americas, and most of my Facebook friends were still at work. I didn’t expect to see many more posts than I saw right then.
I was wrong.
When I checked back later in the afternoon, I saw post after post from people mourning Prince’s death. I could actually feel the pain expressed by many of them. I was surprised.
I was sorry to hear the news, because over the years I’d liked a lot of Prince’s songs, and also many of his songs that had been recorded by others. Prince was a part of the soundtrack of my 20s in particular, but I kind of stopped paying attention when he changed his name to a symbol. So, sorry as I was, I wasn’t mourning his death, even as so many people I knew—and millions more I didn’t—were. It was kind of confusing to me.
That evening, I posted on Facebook something I meant as an expression of support to my friends in pain, while being honest about where I was coming from. I said:
I wasn't a fan of Prince, but I can see that a large number of my Facebook friends were. To them I want to say that while I didn't see what you saw, I DO understand your sense of loss, and I hope you find peace soon. Point scoring is selfish and only hurts people: I will not add to the pain in the world. Peace, my friends, whatever you feel (or don't).I got comments from some who felt the same as me, and some who felt differently, both as mourners and, well, not mourners. One comment was particularly poorly received, but to be honest, I saw far worse things said elsewhere.
Be that as it may, the events made me reflect on everything that was happening, since I wasn’t part of the mass mourning, and yet, was connected to people who were. I don’t know that I’ll ever be in that space again, and I wanted to understand it all.
So, this post sort of evolved from various comments I left on Facebook over the past couple days because I realised that my own personal understanding was growing through making those comments. Others will see things differently, of course, but this is where I arrived.
I realised that when there's a figure who was significant to us during our transition to adulthood, that person can take on a huge symbolic importance, and when that person is a well-known artist—a performer of some sort, an author, whatever—that means the feeling of loss and grief is shared by a great many people. In such situations, collective grief is, in my view, a good way to processes those feelings (personally, I also blog about them, of course).
I think the reason for that is that very often when someone famous like this dies, part of what's happening is that we’re confronted with not just our own mortality (most deaths we mourn personally do that), but we also feel the loosening of the bonds that connected us with a significant period of our lives, while at the same time, it dredges up the pain we felt at that important time. So, in a sense, we're mourning all that we've lost, including our own youth and innocence, as well as remembering all the pain we thought we'd left behind. Through the Internet, we can share that mourning with people who understand what we're feeling and why.
The fact that all this is being played out on the Internet is kind of beside the point, really. Had the Internet existed when Elvis, John Lennon, or Princess Diana died, it would have been the same. In fact, it actually was very similar.
For example, when John Lennon died, the public grief was every bit as pervasive. TV stations had lots of programming, especially on cable. Back then, radio stations played all Lennon songs, some stations adding music by the Beatles, but not all did (in the Chicago radio market, where I lived at the time, there were several stations doing this). There were memorial vigils held in cities and towns around the world. All of that is happening now, too, though much of it is on the Internet.
I definitely wish that the Internet had been around when Lennon was murdered because I found that mourning experience to be very lonely, and I would have loved to have been able to share it with others who felt the same. To be honest, I didn't take much notice of Elvis' death, but Princess Diana's death was similar in some ways to what we're seeing nowadays: Friends and I exchanged emails to talk about what we were feeling, similar to Facebook now, yet we also got together with local friends to watch her funeral on TV, similar to the way things used to be done.
I think what some people lose sight of when there’s mass public mourning is that among the many things that define us as humans are our emotions and the fact we are social animals: Nearly everything nearly everyone does nearly every day is social, from work, to how we live, how we shop, what we do for recreation, and even how we mourn those who’ve died. The Internet Age didn’t create social mourning, it merely made it possible for us to share our grief with lots of people who feel the same way, and there’s no more human response than that.
So, I think what's happening now is no different than the way things used to be, except insofar as people now have this wonderful online world we've created that allows us to share life with each other in ways that were never possible before. When we see something like this outpouring of grief, we don't have to share our friends’ sense of loss to feel badly for them and what they're going through. I wish I could give them all a hug.
Which is why I cannot understand why anyone would feel the need to belittle or in any way dismiss what others are feeling. The whole point of my original Facebook comment was that I didn’t share the feelings everyone else did, but as a human being of course I wanted my friends to feel better: I was acknowledging honestly my feelings AND theirs. This was one of those times when I'd rather give a shoulder to friends in pain than be "right" about some point or other.
I still feel that way: Discussions about issues of one sort or another can happen any time, but this is not that time. It was part of why I phrased my Facebook message the way I did: I wanted critics to button it for the time being to allow people to get through their grief. Some of my fellow human beings—people I actually know—are in pain. I have a duty to ease their pain if I can, but must absolutely avoid making it any worse; I was trying to get some others to realise that, too.
The Internet has provided a great way for people to share their grief with people who feel it, too, and that’s wonderful for them. Really, that should be good enough for the rest of us.
The video up top was shared as a comment to my personal Facebook post. It pretty well sums up what I feel about mourning celebrity deaths online.