In the Metamorphoses, there is a myth in which Baucis and Philemon, an old married couple, are the only people hospitable to Zeus and Hermes when the gods come to a town in disguise. As reward (along with destroying the town), the gods offer the couple any wish they want granted. They ask to die at the exact same time. On their death they become two entwined trees. The older I get, the more this story haunts a central room in my brain. I used to wonder why they didn’t ask for youth or beauty or riches. Now I don’t question the choice at all. When I think of my parents, I always end up at this story, the pleading humanity of it. Surely, it must happen this way for them, I think. Surely that’s the only way it could happen. Then I remember that this is as likely as them transforming into trees, and I close the door on the thoughts entirely.
Our culture has celebrities in place of myths, and we have grief twitter instead of byzantine lore about the journey to the underworld and the proper ways of burial. When celebrities die and we mourn them in a massively public way, this is a safe way to practice mourning for our parents and our partners and our friends, to try to force ourselves to make the unthinkable familiar. The generational quality of this grief comes from the fact that, as the celebrities with whom we grew up die, it signals that we are at the age where people are dying, and we look ahead to the inevitable disasters, the wave that grows larger on the horizon. If our public grief is a performance, it’s a performance in the way that a disaster drill is a performance. Our grief at losing an icon who meant a great deal to us is a real grief but a bearable one. But that bearable grief is a test-drive for future unbearable ones. We practice together in the hope that we can be prepared, so that the idea of loss does not seem so alien. Complaints about the inappropriate nature of grief on social media -- that it’s a circle-jerk, a joiner’s club, an obligated performance -- are as defining a part of these mournings as the remembrances themselves. But to call this grief a performance is to miss the point – it’s not a performance, it’s a rehearsal. It seems right to me that grief be public, and messy, and inconvenient, that it make everyone in its path uncomfortable. Small amounts of discomfort, after all, increase our tolerance for large amounts of pain. Mourning celebrities who mattered to us is a way to remind ourselves that no one is spared, not even those who seemed immortal, larger than a human being with petty little organs doing their pedestrian little jobs inside their skin. Speaking things aloud removes their terror, dulls the power of their unfamiliarity. We speak this over and over to try to come to terms with something that cannot possibly be made familiar.