The past year has seen the death of quite a number of public figures. Michael Jackson’s was the most prominent, but there have been others. However Jackson’s was the death that prompted the worst excess of public grief. It seemed perfectly acceptable for people who had never met him to collapse into paroxysms of grief in public. Television cameras all over the world recorded scenes of people with tears pouring down their faces laying flowers at the impromptu shrines they had created for this person whom they had never met. Nobody questioned their behaviour or wondered why they would have such a violent reaction to the death of someone who in recent years was better known for his suspicious activities than for any artistic creations.
Earlier this year my wife’s uncle passed away, leaving behind his wife and two adopted children. They had been married for more then 30 years and in that time had grown inseparable – one never thought of one without mentioning the other. So it was perfectly understandable that she was devastated when he died. Yet at his funeral there were whispers of why doesn’t she control herself, who does she think she’s trying to impress in response to her grief. However, the real whispering didn’t start until a couple months after his death and she was still liable to burst into tears at any time.
My wife and I were at a family dinner some months after her uncle died and the subject of her aunt came up. We hadn’t been in contact with her since the funeral so we asked how she was doing. I was shocked by the vehemence of the disgust that was expressed over the fact that she was still crying over the loss of her husband. “She gets one glass of wine into her and she’s off” was said with great scorn.
I couldn’t believe it; the woman had lost the person who had been the biggest part of her world for close to 30 years and people were being impatient with her because she was still grieving. I couldn’t help thinking how I’d be reacting if my wife was the one who had died and. How could they expect her to be able turn off the grief she was feeling as if it were something she had any control over? I would have been more concerned if she hadn’t still been crying over her loss. Yet here was this group of so-called adults, supposedly her family and support, sitting around nodding wisely and saying it was time for her to get on with her life.
According to whom, I want to know? As I was trying to figure out what was so wrong with her crying about losing the man she’d loved only a few months ago, I caught hold of a key phrase floating around amidst the conversation: “It’s just so embarrassing”. For a second I couldn’t figure out what was so embarrassing, and then I realized they meant the fact that the poor woman was still crying about the the loss of the love of her life. Her grief was too real for them and they didn’t know what to do about it. Why it didn’t occur to them to comfort her, I wondered, instead of criticizing her for being upset?
When the conversation turned to Michael Jackson a short while later and comments were made about how moving it was to see all the people crying for him, I was even more confused. In one breath they were criticizing a women for crying because her heart was breaking, and with the other they are exclaiming at how wonderful it was to see people crying over a total stranger. Why was the one so acceptable and the other not? What made the one moving while the other was embarrassing? Why was it more acceptable for there to be a public outpouring of grief for a famous person than public grief from a private person?
I think people are scared of grief when it comes too close them, and they don’t know what to do about it. It’s one thing to watch it on television, but another thing altogether to sit and have it on display in your living room. There’s no such thing as controlling your grief either – you either feel something or you don’t – and if you do why should you be made to feel ashamed for feeling it?
When Nina DeVille wrote to tell me that her husband Willy had been diagnosed as having stage four pancreatic cancer last May, she said, “We try to pretend everything is normal, but nothing will ever be normal again”. A part of you has been ripped away forever and you’re expected to carry on as if everything was normal, or to get over it and get on with your life. How can anything ever be normal again? Is it even possible?
While I still don’t pretend to understand the mass hysteria that surrounded Michael Jackson’s death, Willy DeVille’s death this past August has given me a little more appreciation for people’s need to share their grief over the loss of a public figure. In June I started a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the person who started the petition I had to make an email address available and as a result I’ve been hearing from individuals from all over the world about how Willy’s music affected them.
I have to admit I wondered why people would write a total stranger to tell them about their grief, but after a while I simply accepted the honour they were according me. Maybe they had read some of the things I had written about Willy and realized I too was moved by him personally as well as professionally. Maybe because I had interviewed him on occasion and was in contact with his wife Nina periodically, they felt I was the closest they could get to telling Willy how they felt about him. I don’t know, but I do know that I heard from people who had been close to Willy when they were young, people who had never known him, and people like me whose lives had intersected his briefly outside the music and were changed forever by the contact.
I then remembered 1980 when John Lennon had been killed, and how I had gone down to Nathan Philip’s Square in Toronto, Ontario to join thousands of others standing around in the cold to remember and celebrate John’s life. Whatever it was that I was looking for there that night I didn’t find. Whoever had organized it made sure to play the right music, and there were speeches from people like Ronnie Hawkins who had known Lennon, but it didn’t do anything for me. I realize now it was because we were all there as individuals; nothing was done to bring us together or make us feel we weren’t alone in our grief. The person standing next to me could have been feeling the same things as me, but the event was so impersonal I never found out.
So when I received an email from somebody wanting to know if I could help organize a memorial for DeVille in New York City, I was only too glad to have an excuse to pass – I live in Canada and can’t travel to the States for a variety of reasons – because I couldn’t envision it being of benefit to anyone. However I’ve recently had cause to change my mind as I’ve found out more about who the people are behind the event and why they are doing it. Three people, from different parts of North America, tied together by their appreciation of Willy DeVille’s music have decided to meet in New York City on October 10th in Tompkins Square Park, on the Avenue B side, at three in the afternoon to remember Willy. They have invited anyone who is interested in doing the same to join them. If you can’t make it to the park, or if the weather sucks, they plan on meeting up at Bar On A, 170 Avenue A, where there will be white roses for everybody and Willy’s music played throughout the night.
It doesn’t sound like there will be any speeches, just a group of like-minded people getting together to tell stories and talk about what Willy meant to them. Missing somebody is a very personal matter and we don’t often have the opportunity to talk, even with those who supposedly care about us, about why we loved somebody or why we miss them. I think of my wife’s aunt and how much she would appreciate the opportunity to sit around with a group of people one night listening to them talk about her late husband and what he meant to them. I think how it would be nice for her to have the chance to do the same with people who won’t be judging her for feeling pain at her loss, and I can see how this memorial for Willy DeVille could be of benefit where others haven’t been.
Grief is nothing to be afraid of, but neither should it be the spectator sport that it seems to have become in our mass media world. When you lose somebody you care about, nobody has the right to tell you how to feel or when you should “get over it”, nor should you be made to feel guilty for your grief. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t have your best interest at heart no matter what they say. Only you know the size of the hole that was left in your heart; everybody else can only guess at it.
For those interested in attending the Willy DeVille Memorial in New York City on October 10th you may RSVP to WDcelebration@gmail.com, but feel free to show up whether you RSVP or not.