Synthetic Mourning

As a guest panelist on a recent television program, columnist George Will described the reaction to Michael Jackson’s death last month as “synthetic mourning.” I was struck by his reference to this as a modern phenomenon.

Much as I respect his opinions, I disagree. I don’t think we mourn the loss of celebrities in an artificial, synthetic fashion. I think what we feel as a society is real, is genuine, is heartfelt.

In a second-season episode of the AMC TV series ‘Mad Men,’ set in August of 1962, the Sterling Cooper advertising agency staff mourns the death of Marilyn Monroe. And there is a feeling of real pain and loss. I remember that feeling – she was beautiful, she was talented, she was too young to die – and all the circumstances of the day surrounding it, just as I do the day that President Kennedy was killed the following year.

I remember where I was (San Francisco) and how I felt in August of 1997 when Princess Di was killed in an automobile accident in Paris. She was beautiful. She was a constant presence in our lives for 16 years. She was too young to die.

I believe these celebrity deaths are mourned in the same way in which we mourn the sudden deaths of our more ‘acceptable’ national heroes, like President Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Where we were and how we felt when they died are stamped in our memories because, somehow, time shifts gear when we experience significant loss. We mark the day, the location, the reactions of those around us. And we examine our own feelings.

The loss we feel at the death of Michael Jackson is for what he was at his best – an unparalleled singer, dancer, songwriter, and pop icon. He entertained us and inspired us with his music for 40 years. We enjoyed looking at him and listening to him. He made us dance. He filled us with the joy of movement and rhythm. He made us want to turn the volume up and up so that the sound of his music filled our world for the length of a song. And as happiness is fleeting, the length of a song can be an abundant gift of happiness.

Life is good when I am listening to or looking at a Michael Jackson performance. It is keen and stepped up and intense. I am grateful we have the sight and sound of him preserved. I genuinely mourn the loss of his great talent.

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