“2016 has been a terrible year,” I’ve heard repeatedly since January. First, it was David Bowie, quickly followed by Alan Rickman. Over the year shocking and unexpected announcements were made about the deaths of Prince, Mohammad Ali and Gene Wilder.
We can’t forget the many people who had smaller roles in our seventies/eighties pop culture: George Gaines from Punky Brewster and Police Academy, George Kennedy from The Naked Gun movies, James Noble from Benson, Ron Glass and Abe Vigoda from Barney Miller, and the Pat Harrington from One Day at a Time. Creators like Garry Marshall who gave us Happy Days and Pretty Woman aren’t here anymore. Even music got a little quieter when Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire as well as Glen Frey from The Eagles died.
And then this month happened.
Our beloved 80’s dad Alan Thicke tragically and suddenly passed due to a malfunctioning aorta. Then came Carrie Fisher’s heart attack on an airplane. They said she was stable… so she should be ok, right? Before we heard any more on her condition, George Michael died on Christmas Day. Two days later, Fisher died.
For my fellow Generation X-ers, our entire childhood is fading fast before us. Two thousand sixteen reminded us of this.
The Grim Reaper’s frequent visits happen occasionally. In my personal life, I remember the uncomfortable year of 1994. First, my grandma died of metastatic breast cancer. Then my grandfather had a massive stroke. Finally, my grandfather’s brother died from a sudden heart attack in the doctor’s office. My soul felt a bit worn by the end of the year – especially after a breakup of a long term relationship in October.
Grief is the greatest experience I remember from that year. It’s amazing how so much grief will cloud one specific year of your life.
As a pastor, I see how death comes in waves. There are times when we have three funerals in one week. Or there are times when our congregations seem like they’ve lost so many people in one year. All Saint’s Sunday is filled with names of our recently deceased read aloud. I’ve seen this happen in two specific years of my ministry so far: 2010 and 2015.
These are people who we knew and with whom we spoke and with whom I worked. This still makes me why we experience so much grief when a celebrity dies.
We’ve never really knew them – we think to ourselves. But their contribution to the soundtracks and movies of our lives leads us to consider them a close part of who we are and our life experiences. Remember the middle school sleepovers and singing Prince songs at 1a.m…. or how many times we watched Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves during the summer of 1991 – – right after graduating high school. Or how many Star Wars movies with Carrie Fisher did we see on the big screen. The first I watched at the theaters was Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Leia is the one who rescues her beloved and then strangles her captor after she is enslaved. Fisher brought to life one of the strongest females on screen – transforming from a strong-willed princess to a general in charge of the continuing rebellion.
They are part of our stories, and we are forever grateful for their existence and contributions. We are grateful for their vulnerability in art.
Which reminds me of the lines in the play Our Town. After the main female protagonist Emily dies from childbirth, she yearns to experience life once again. She experiences a semi-ordinary day in her life – giving her the realization that she really didn’t experience life while she ways living it. Emily says to the state manager narrator of the story: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it… every, every minute? The Stage Manager replies “No. Saints and poets maybe… they do some.”
David. Alan. Gene. Maurice. Prince. Alan. George. Carrie. You felt all of the feelings. Your experience of emotions influenced your craft in generous and ingenious ways. You were the saints and poets that were mentioned by the Stage Manager in Our Town. You experienced the range of emotions – even to the point when it affected your health and well-being. And you are gone today. But your experiences remain with you forever on that side of heaven where all of you abide. Fortunately, your gifts remain with us forever.
Thank you for your gifts, your risks, your authenticity. Thank you for being you.
Death cannot take you fully away from us because your lasting contributions are still here. This is what everyday resurrection is about. 2016 did not win.
(I missed many other artists and leaders who passed this year as well and who contributed so much. For a full list of notable people who died in 2016, see this article.)