Ever since Michael Jackson's funeral at Staples Center was announced about three hours ago, I've been trying to join the list of people who will be allowed to attend. I have dual interests in this: first as a death and dying expert wanting to witness up close, the phenomenon of Public Grief. And partly to honor the man I knew who showed so much kindness to terminally ill children that I brought to his Neverland Ranch. The upshot is that so far, I have not been able to register due to so many people trying to get on the site at the same time.
This begs the question: Why do we love Michael Jackson even more in death than we did in life?
When he died a few short days ago, people came forth to report that Michael was practically a recluse who could never have made it onto a stage for a performance, much less fifty performances. He was presented as drug-addicted, needle-ridden, frail and wasting, a fifty-year old man whose image had so declined, we believed he was illusory about still being able to perform.
But that was a fleeting point of view. On Thursday, we were presented with a new image of Michael two days before his death, in rehearsal for his opening. He now looked strong, charismatic, electric and more in command of the stage than ever. His musical director, the head of AEG, and others connected to his show, appeared on CNN to say that the night before his death, he left the Staples Center happy, eager, and in great anticipation of his comeback. They said he, himself, had agreed to do fifty shows instead of the original ten that had jumped to thirty.
Although I originally viewed this death as a public grief phenomenon, I soon found myself becoming more and more personally attached. I reflected on a kind, magical man who gave his day to a group of very sick children whom I brought to the ranch. He wanted no press at that time and no cameras. I was struck that he made no grand entrance, he looked relatively normal with no makeup, special hair or costuming, he made sure to give personal attention to each child, and he spent the most time with a young girl who clearly had very little time left.
In public grief, the media first reports the death, and then explores the "whys" and the "hows." In the initial days, we looked at the tragedy as just one more pop icon in decline. But public grief is fluid and dynamic, which was obvious when we saw the video of Michael rehearsing.
Our Public Grieving Template was transformed from sadness mixed with judgment around a drug addict, unable to get on a stage, practically a skeleton, too fragile to ever perform again, into a strong, excited, hard working man in pain, generally sleep-deprived, possibly a victim of doctors who overstepped their professional ethics and boundaries.
In the end, our Public Grief reflects a man who died too soon. For today, the public loves Michael even more in death than in life. Nothing feeds public grief more than a comeback, even after death.
By the way, the moment I finished this article, my computer screen lit up with,
"Your registration for your chance to attend the Michael Jackson Public Memorial Service has been received." Whether or not I get tickets to this event, I will be observing this rare outpouring of Public Grief.