Even without my glasses, there is a book on my bookshelf I can easily identify from across the room, just by its spine.
I haven’t read it for years but this book, and some treasured others, has travelled with me from house to house, bookshelf to bookshelf, since my first year at university in 1984. Like Saul recovering his sight after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes when I read this book because, through it, I understood more about myself.
The book is The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard (pictured here as a young woman). I have read other books she wrote and have enjoyed them but they did not impact me to the same degree. Shirley Hazzard died on 12 December 2016. She was 85. Although I love her writing, the truth is that I won’t actually miss her.
The curse of 2016
So many words have been devoted to lamenting 2016 and what a terrible year it was. And what was it that had the mainstream conversation so incensed? The death of ‘celebrities’ whose careers had put them in the public eye at some time in their lives.
Radio, TV, Internet, Social Media – by December so many were talking about 2016 as a beast with a life of its own. Some of these ‘celebrity deaths’ in 2016 have brought sadness, shock, outrage, conspiracy theories and pessimism. Quite rightly, people have felt that it isn’t fair. It’s true. Death is not fair (and neither is life, in many ways).
In some cases, added details made the passing even more poignant. Anne Deveson died just a few days after her daughter, Georgia Blain. Debbie Reynolds died just a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. On the day Zsa Zsa Gabor died, her adopted son had a motorcycle accident that led to his death just days later. Surely there’s something going on.
There sure is, and I’ll spell it out for you: Death happens. To everyone. Without exception. Sooner or later.
Oh no, not them!
Speaking truthfully, who will you miss more: Debbie, Anne, Zsa Zsa, Georgia, Carrie or Oliver? Which is more tragic: death from cancer, heart disease, dementia, drugs or motorcycle collision? (No disrespect is intended here. I know that death by any cause is wrenching and traumatic.)
If you have any sense of genuine grief about the deaths of these or other ‘well known’ people, it may be because the person who left this life was someone you personally knew: a relative, a friend, a lover, a colleague, an old schoolmate. Celebrities have all these people in their lives, people who know the person and not the image. If so, I am sorry for your loss.
However, most of the public mourning and lamenting that went on last year whenever a well-known, or once well-known, identity died, was done by people who had never met them, worked with them, lived near them or cleaned up after them. Most of the outcry came from voyeurs who watched the ‘celebrity’ from a distance and projected emotions and experiences on to them.
“But no more Prince music!” True. “But Alan Rickman is such a wonderful actor!” True. “But Florence Henderson! I used to watch Brady Bunch all the time.” Me too.”
The cause of death
Without doubt, the number 1 cause of death around the world is BEING HUMAN. Across history and in every culture, this is the one and only common risk factor. Humanity has a 100% morbidity rate!
But it keeps taking us by surprise and we mourn deeply. Death is a completely ordinary experience and yet, in our souls, it feels completely unnatural.
The reason we grieve someone we know only from their publicity is that they are somehow part of us, or part of our history, or part of our dreams or part of our future. They mean something to us because we find ourselves reflected somehow in them.
When we mourn them, we mourn ourselves.
Singer, George Michael is, for me, a reminder of myself in the 1980s. Wham! existed for me, didn’t they? Just as David Bowie is a collection of moments from the soundtrack of my life, an unknowable force, as compelling as youth and the orbit of the planets.
Cricketer, Max Walker is, for my husband, a reminder of himself as a young guy with long hair and a talent for sport. Maxie Walker (nicknamed Tangles because of his bowling style) symbolises good mates, good fun and a bloody good yarn during some of Australia’s cheekiest cricket eras.
These men all died in 2016, too early, too sick, too far away, too human. And it will happen to us too.
A positive note
As years go, 2016 was not that bad, death-wise. Yes there were lots of ‘names’ we recognised which kept appearing in mainstream media obituaries and tribute reels – it might have seemed there were so many personalities dying that soon there’d be none left. But overall, the global death rate actually came down. *
In the year 2000, the crude death rate was 9 deaths per 1000 people. By the middle of 2016, that number had come down to 7.8 people per 1000.
In the USA, the country where most of 2016’s celebrities lived and died, that rate was 8.15. Australia came in well below average at 7.07 and the UK up at 9.34.
Are these higher figures worrying? No. Because in developed countries, with better health systems and longer lifespans, people reach older ages and skew the death rate as a result.
Should we be worried about the death rates anywhere? Oh yes. On the same ranking of death rates by nation, six of the top 10 countries are in Africa where I know that old age is not the main contributor.
On any one day in 2016, for every one celebrity who died, we need to remember to mourn the babies, the mothers in childbirth, the soldiers and civilians, the displaced, the terrified, the hungry, the trafficked, the nameless and the destitute, the aged, the sick and the brave as well as the glamorous, the well-fed, the comfortable, the talented, the charismatic, the educated, the employed and the popular.
Over to you
If you’re reading this, you are alive. Here are a few things to do:
- Embrace your life and actively live it. You know, drive it instead of setting in on cruise control.
- Embrace the lives of others. Play Leonard Cohen’s music, watch Gene Wilder’s movies, take your kids bike riding, hang out with your grandparents, spend a bit longer listening to people, turn off your phone occasionally.
- Write down your wishes for your own death and how your life is celebrated. Make sure you share these wishes with a couple of people.
- Recycle your organs. When you die, parts you no longer need could help up to 10 other living people. Australians can find out more here.
- Shift the Social Media focus from people who die in the limelight, to the millions of humans lost each day in horrendous conflict or poverty or captivity, whether overseas or closer to home. In most places on Earth, a mother and daughter dying within days of each other is not unusual at all.
- Deal with your feelings about life and death and the reality of your own situation. If you are struggling in life, please talk to someone sensible. Friend, partner, Facebook, parent, pastor, doctor, counsellor, teacher, Lifeline 13 11 14 … If you don’t know what to say, start with, “I’m struggling.”
- Lastly, I urge you to consider this one big question: why does death feel so wrong when it happens to us all. This is a fundamental question and the answer, if you find it, will enrich your life.
* CIA word fact book, http://www.indexmundi.com