According to Vox's Why we grieve artists we've never met, people can mourn and weep over people they never personally knew for this reason, "We don't cry because we knew them. We cry because they helped us know ourselves." Writer Caroline Framke reproduces this tweet which was posted by Juliette@ElusiveJ, and Framke goes on to say that artists help us access our emotions and get to know ourselves better. It's that raw connection that makes us feel a loss when they die.
Except for those of us that don't. When David Bowie died, I felt like a callous person because it didn't have any emotional effect on me. Now Prince has died and I feel nothing once again. I'm 49 years and three quarters old. Prince was my contemporary. I was buying music, going to dances and driving my first car when his first hits influenced pop music. I even liked a lot of them. But I'm just not feeling his absence.
Framke's theory is that when a musician dies, our emotional connection to their music makes us mourn them. She writes that artists "give voice to both the huge emotions that threaten to consume you and the fuzzy ones lying in wait in your periphery, indistinct but just as urgent. Great artists reach into their own hearts, brains, and guts to wrench out what's most vital and hold it out for you to grasp."
That's a powerful idea and beautifully written, but I've never felt that kind of emotional connection to any artist. I've certainly felt moved by music. I've had songs touch my heart and make me cry. But that was a response to the music, not the person who made it. When I think of the songs that affect me the most, the people who made that music feel removed from me. I don't know them. My very favorite recording artists could all drop dead (and several of them have), but because the music that touched me is still here, it doesn't really matter to me what happens to the physical body that made that music.
I feel like a heartless bitch because I don't feel the least emotional twinge at Prince's death. A friend said that it's always sad when someone dies, but I don't even agree with that. Because I maintain that life is suffering, and death can't possibly be worse, someone's life ending doesn't always make me sad. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it doesn't. Prince is dead. Good for him. One day I'll be dead. Good for me.
So I wrestle with the question: why does the death of famous people they never knew make some people feel devastated? I suspect some of it is displaced emotions. Many people have grief they've never expressed or fully released, so even the death of someone they didn't know can cause those emotions to come flooding out. I also suspect part of it is fear of their own mortality. Prince was just a few years older than me. If he can suddenly die, how far away can my own death be? Maybe that idea terrifies some people into tears.
And yes, there's the idea that any death is sad, but I think that attitude must be connected to someone's previous experience with death. If, in the past, you learned that death is sad, you're programmed to feel sad in response to it. Those kinds of connections can be very powerful.
I struggle with all the mourning over Prince because I lack the emotional connections most people seem to have: a famous person's death doesn't trigger my grief, I don't believe dying is any sadder than continuing to live, my connection to music doesn't extend to the person who recorded it, and I'm not afraid of getting closer to the day I'll die. So I say this to those who are crying about Prince: I'm sorry you're in pain and I wish you the best kind of healing. That's all I can offer.