By Kathy Berken
Does anybody else find it curious that we grieve the deaths of people we don’t know? When Robin Williams died, I was saddened and then shocked that he took his own life, having suffered silently with depression and the beginnings of Parkinson’s Disease. David Letterman said that he knew Williams for 38 years and never knew of his pain.
“Commonweal” writer Rand Richards Cooper echoed my sentiment in his Aug. 19 article: “Grieving the loss of a celebrity is a strange thing. Not knowing the real person, we mourn a fantasy of the person that we have created through inference and imagination.”
Am I mourning just a fantasy, then? I had no relationship with Robin Williams. I didn’t know what he was like off-stage, yet he did help me feel deeply, laugh loudly, and think philosophically. Even more, he helped me remember those I have connected with, laughed and joked with, and left feeling more alive. With Robin’s sudden death, all of that disappears. There will be no more of his sidesplitting monologues about the origins of golf, for instance, or movies about wise professors or therapists only he could personify.
In the same way, didn’t we grieve the deaths of Pope John XXIII, JFK, even Elvis? I remember when Muppet creator Jim Henson died. I was devastated. Kermit and all Jim’s characters had to somehow be replaced, and we would never know what his wild and free imagination might have conjured for us to enjoy.
We don’t lose the past with these celebrities, because where we met them — a movie, a song or a TV show — is still available. Rather, we lose the future with them — the possibility of even more inspiration, humor, or wisdom. The point is that we have essentially take-only relationships with the fantasies of those celebrities, so our grieving for them is one-sided and fleeting.
Authentic give-and-take relationships are three-dimensional and their deaths cause permanent changes in us. What dies along with their body is the possibility of not only a future together, but also the opportunity to continue building together. When they die, you can never revisit, recreate, reminisce, review, renew, or reconcile anything. Memorabilia isn’t enough to fill the hole and mend the pain, as can be done with the celebrity’s death.
I still grieve the deaths of my parents who died some 40 years ago, and of course I have just begun to grieve my dear friend Lee’s death. Their lives remain embedded inside of mine, leaving mostly mental snapshots and videos of our relationships. There’s that empty space that causes so much pain, but that’s where I’ll admit I’ve stumbled in my grieving. I’ve poured people, places, and things into the chasm, desperately hoping to return to relationships that are no more. I cry for them, feeling the pain in my whole body sometimes, but go nowhere. I’ve discovered that healing the deepest wounds doesn’t happen by simply watching another episode of “Mork and Mindy.”
I’ve reflected a lot recently on my deepest griefs as I walk my cancer journey. As I did 14 years ago when I first had breast cancer, I again surrendered my body, mind and life to the process of healing. My losses are physical, emotional and mental. There are things I will never renew, recreate or revisit.
What surprises me, however, as I wander my days, in and out of the chemo effects, is catching myself rising above the tears as I’ve begun an intentional and simple practice that moves me a little forward. I watch a video of Robin Williams’ antics and whisper, “Thank you.” I look at a picture of my parents or Lee, think of a happy time together, and say aloud, “Thank you.” I recall the support from family and friends during this cancer adventure and smile at what I wouldn’t have had without their love, time, gifts, and devotion, and tell them, “Thank you.”
It seems so simple, but that just makes it more powerful. Medieval theologian Meister Eckhart said it centuries ago: “If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.” He was absolutely right.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)