Mourning the death of a familiar stranger


(Photo Credit: Steve Alexander (originally posted to Flickr as Glenn Frey) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

In recent days, we’ve lost famous names we all know: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey. Many of us have cried, or otherwise felt such deep sadness over their passing. Someone wondered why we mourn these people that we don’t know.  I think @ElusiveJ said it best on Twitter:

Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves. –@ElusiveJ

Whether we see them act in a movie, saying lines and expressing emotions that were written for them by a scriptwriter, or on a stage or in a video, singing lyrics that they or someone else wrote, these people speak to parts of us that we sometimes don’t even know need to have that conversation until it happens.

Creativity and imagination give us a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves. They give us the ability to express things about the world and ourselves that we can’t just come right out and say. By putting them into words in a story or a song, by painting them on a canvas, or creating a whole new world on a movie screen, we can say the things that would otherwise be hidden deep inside, where no one else would ever know about them. Where we might never even know about them.

Sometimes, someone else can say it before we can, or better than we can. They’re the ones who become famous, who become the big name that makes us cry when we hear that they’ve died. The ones that the world feels just a little bit emptier without them in it, because it is. Knowing that they will never again put something we feel into words we can identify with, that we’ll never hear another new song or see another new movie and think, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel!” makes us feel a little lonelier than we did before. It’s one less person who knows how we feel, and it doesn’t matter if they never even knew that they knew how we felt, or knew that we existed at all.

We read books for a similar reason. In some books, it’s because it identifies that feeling we already have. In others, it allows us to feel someone that we couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise feel. Whether it’s outright rage, intense fear, or even a sexual longing, there are plenty of feelings that we don’t allow ourselves to think about. They’re outside the norm of society, or too scary, or too risky to allow ourselves to go out and feel in our reality. But by reading a book in which we can feel those things through the character, we’re about to feel the feeling in a safe and secure environment, one that we can entirely control. After all, if it gets too intense, you close the book and walk away until you feel that you can handle it again.

Singers, songwriters, actors, authors, artists of all shapes, sizes, and styles, become a part of our lives when they touch us with their work. We may never meet them, and they may never know we even exist, but they’re still a part of our lives. And when they die, they take a little piece of us with them.

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