I was asleep when I heard my phone buzz. The clock said it was 5:24 AM and my mind started racing. Because I work in the field of death and dying, I have a list of people who are near death in my mind. People often ask if death really occurs in 3's?
Ed McMahon was dead. I was not surprised. I'd been hearing the in and outs of his stays at UCLA Medical Center through a mutual friend, how at times he was near death and then pulled through. Now he was at peace.
Two days later, just past 9:30 AM, I was notified that Farrah Fawcett had died twenty minutes earlier. Again, this was tragic but not a surprise. I'd been in touch with her close and devoted friend Alana Stewart and knew she was very sick.
Less than six hours later in a meeting, someone whispered to me that Michael Jackson had suffered cardiac arrest. A couple of hours later it was confirmed that he had died and I was stunned. I flashed back to an incredible day years ago when I brought a group of terminally ill children to his Neverland Ranch. Michael spent an entire magical day there with us.
Having written two books with the Elisabeth Kubler Ross about the stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining depression and acceptance, I see how it all fits into public grief. Of course, the public experiences the stages differently than the family. But in Ed McMahon's case, we got to acceptance quite quickly since we were all aware of his age and the trajectory of his illness.
For Farrah, we went through the stages together, starting with her initial announcement that she had cancer. We began in denial with the common disbelief that someone so young and vivacious could have a terminal illness. Then she brought us into her world through her documentary, where we went through the stages with her. After the initial denial, we became angry that cancer had come to our favorite Angel. Public discussions reflected bargaining that maybe her vast worldwide resources could conquer it. What did the public think, were they as hopeful? We became depressed when we saw that she was getting sicker by the day. And finally, by the time she died, we were sad but we had reached acceptance and were glad she was no longer suffering.
Michael, on the other hand, was the epitome of sudden death. We were collectively thrust into denial and are now obsessed with the "whys." In denial, people often tell the story of their loss over and over, one way that our mind deals with trauma. In public grief, the media actually leads us through this part by reminiscing for us as we try to face the truth. Does our grief reflect the level of attention the media gives a story or does the media truly reflect our grief? As denial fades, it is slowly replaced with the reality of loss. This is when we collectively begin to ask questions as we review the circumstances: How did this happen? Did it have to happen that way? Could anything have prevented it? Deepak Chopra and Rev. Jesse Jackson are giving voice to those questions.
Our denial is cushioned by memories of the music, the images and the stories. Then, we may move into the stage of anger as the answers come to us. What role did others play in Michael Jacksons's death? If they did, how much influence did they have? And then, we begin to bargain as we explore the "what ifs." If Michael Jackson was drug-addicted, could he have been saved? Could more love have cured his loneliness? Would a different childhood have produced a different outcome? These unanswerable questions are part of the inconclusive grief mixed with fame that elevates a person into an eternal legend. Collectively, we did it with Marilyn Monroe, we did it with Elvis Presley, and now we are doing it with Michael Jackson.
For Michael as with most everyone else, we make an unspoken collective agreement to avoid speaking ill of the dead or at least to minimize it. While the controversies will always be a part of his story, I expect they will be retold in the context of how his loss of a childhood impacted his pathology. Then we can move into the stage of depression, as we review the life of a legend, an icon that was a part of our lives for almost fifty years. This will most likely happen during the lull between the questions and the funeral, which will help us collectively move into acceptance.
As we see the constant images of these icons on television, the media can help us understand that we can be in different stages of multiple deaths, all at the same time. The reality is that deaths do not necessarily come in threes. But this last week, it sure feels that way.
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