When Michael Jackson died I was a bit surprised by the emotional responses of so many people. It baffled me to see how invested they were in someone many of them never met. My pietist side questioned their love for such an “idol”. Why didn’t they care about the man who died homeless in their town, or the hundreds dying in wars in the Middle East, or the thousands dying of HIV/AIDS in Africa?
I’ve changed my position on this now.
One could argue that it is objectively worse than one thousand people die than if your own spouse or one of your children were to die, but we know that the impact of someone’s death is relative. If a man lost his wife on September 11th, 2001, of a heart attack in Dallas, Texas, we would not be offended that he felt more grief for her than for all the combined lives of the terrorist attacks that same day. We understand intuitively that the familiarity and influence of someone upon us often determines how we feel about their death. We mourn death because we lose something/someone, not simply because “people die.”
Whitney Houston died today. Personally, I am saddened by it, but she wasn’t a huge part of my life like she was for so many. While I realize I am not as bummed as others I don’t judge those who mourn her passing even if they never met her. I understand death’s impact is subjective.
As silly as it may sound to some I know I will mourn the day Michael Jordan dies. Why? Because as a teenager I watched Michael Jordan for inspiration. No, I could not do what he could do on the basketball court, but when I was failing high school I mimicked that “I will not lose” look in his eyes and applied it to life’s challenges. My senior year in high school began with me far behind what I needed to graduate. It became a type of “fourth quarter” for me and I made it.
For some Whitney Houston sang the song that they heard the night they met their future spouse or she was the one whose voice made them dance with their best friends after a break-up. Some may say, “All she did is sing and act, what about people who do A, B, and C?” Well, first of all, our world is a sad, hard place. We need those people who make us sing and dance, who give us stories, who take our minds off reality for a little while. Now this may not be the same as the work of Mother Theresa, but again, the impact is subjective.
We humans cannot handle giving equal value to every death of every humans. Our psyche would melt. So when someone says, “Who cares that she died, did you know [insert # here] died of [insert disease, natural disaster, war fatalities, et cetera here] [insert day, days, week, weeks, or other time span here].” it doesn’t matter. Maybe it should, but it can’t, because we aren’t God and we can’t comprehend numbers like that.
So no, I don’t think it is wrong for people to be sad by the death of one named person than the report of a large number of unnamed people. Yes, the multitudes that perish matter, but let’s be honest, millions die every day because of various things and we know it is not possible to give them equal attention.
So go ahead, feel sad that Whitney Houston died, this is how we humans grieve the people that mattered to us.