This year isn’t the first during which famous and beloved people have died. A most basic fact of life is that famous and beloved people die every year.
In fact, Wikipedia has a running page called “Deaths in 2020,” listing all of the notable individuals who have died this year, and it is constantly updated. In fact, as I write this early in the afternoon of Dec. 29, 10 famous people have been added to the list. They died today.
That’s how it is. We are born; we live our lives; we die. Because of the worldwide scare, people are feeling their mortality more acutely this year, but the running death toll is nothing new.
Some die well before their time, like Kobe Bryant. Some die after a century of giving, like Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas. Many die before we’re ready to lose them, like John Prine or Sean Connery or Chadwick Boseman. Many have died of COVID-19; many others have died of cancer, diabetes, heart disease — all of us die of something, someday.
I wrote this just before the calendar turned to 2017, and four years later it still feels worth saying. I shared it again last New Year’s Eve, and I share it again:
Quite a few famous people have died in 2016. Quite a few famous people die every year; one of the regular features of the Academy Awards is a review of all the great actors and filmmakers who have passed in the previous year, and it’s always overwhelming how long the list is.
Somehow people seem to be taking it harder this year. The sad and sudden deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher in recent days provoked an outpouring of grief not only for those two fine talents but for all of the people who passed this year – David Bowie, Prince, George Martin, Muhammed Ali, Leonard Cohen …
It’s sad. It’s always sad. When people die “before their time,” it seems especially sad, as in the cases of Michael, 53, and Fisher, 60.
In the case of famous, brilliant performers, however, there is some solace: Their work will live, if not forever, then for a very long time.
That’s the one comfort we have thanks to the technologies of recording and publishing. The words, the images, the performances survive.
And so I am sad about George Michael and Carrie Fisher dying before we were ready to say goodbye. But then I pop When Harry Met Sally or The Empire Strikes Back into the DVD player, or call up “Faith” (or the brilliant TV series Eli Stone) on the web, and there they are.
Death reminds us to live life. The death of my hero Ray Bradbury in 2012 made me sad, and then I got up and wrote a novel.
The other day I was browsing a book called The Bradbury Chronicles, which was published in 1991 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the master’s first published short story with a parcel of short stories by great writers who were inspired by Bradbury. He also contributed a story (“The Troll”) and an essay (“Fifty Years, Fifty Friends”) to the collection.
In the essay he wrote that his optimistic outlook about life and the future was gained through others:
So, you see, that my feeling of optimism came from the encouragement I got from those listed, and some not, who caused me to write/work/play joyously every day and thus achieve the optimal behavior I am always yelling about.
To live at the top of your lungs, your genetics, the rambling and incoherent half-awake, half-asleep dreams just before dawn, or in the morning shower, or on your pillow during afternoon naps. To NOT KNOW what you’re doing but find out in the doing. To always be surprised and never damn or turn away from surprise. To love life while surrounded by so much that is annihilation. To answer, as I did one night not long ago at a lecture, when asked, “Why do you write so much about death?” To which I said, “Because I am alive.”
Are you grieving for George and Carrie and all of the others? I understand. I grieve, too. But rather than curse 2016 and rail against the inevitable, I suggest the following.
Compose a song. Do a dance. Write a story or a screenplay or a book. Record a video that tells one of your favorite memories. Create something that will live long after you’re gone, so that people know you passed this way. Encourage someone so that they will live in joy, knowing you believe in them.
Live, so that death can never win.