It’s been 5 weeks since the untimely death of Prince, a musical genius whose art colored the backdrop of adolescence and early adulthood for many of my generation. In noticing the collective sense of sadness and loss that has emerged, I’ve been taken aback, surprised by how many, myself included, seem to be deeply affected by his passing.
This past Friday, as thousands of Portlanders turned out in their Purple-Rain-finest to dance in a historic ballroom to his musical legacy, I couldn’t help but wonder what drew us together in his memory. Why has this loss meant so much to so many?
In the bereavement support field, I had sometimes heard practitioners question or dismiss the collective sorrow observed when a celebrity died. “They didn’t know the person”, they might say, in response to impromptu piles of flowers laid along a fence or sidewalk while throngs shed tears, “They can’t really grieve the death”.
On the one hand, I agreed with this. The foundation of grief – the severance of a close or significant bond – is wholly absent when someone with whom we had no direct connection dies. The complex array of thoughts, feelings, and experiences we encounter with the passing of a loved one cannot possibly be paralleled by the death of someone we “knew” only through media portrayal.
Our lives can be truly shaken by close loss, our “assumptive worlds”, as one bereavement scholar notes (i.e. Attig, 1996/2010), reshaped and transformed. Surely we recognize the distinction between adapting to the loss of a partner, parent, sibling, or close friend, and the far more minor adjustment we make in coming to terms with the death of a figure whose work we valued, admired, and appreciated.
Yet, does this mean the latter experience is not one of grief? If we are not infact truly able to grieve a person whom we didn’t know, how to explain our response? Are we grieving something else?
When Prince was alive, I didn’t identify as a huge fan. Perhaps more exactly, I didn’t recognize the deep allegiance to him that I knew I carried for other artists, say, Springsteen or Stevie. I always enjoyed his music, especially on the dance floor; had seen him a few times live; and carried a genuine respect for his talent. Still, it hadn’t occurred to me until he died that I had any significant particular attachment to him or his work.
But upon reflection, I began to realize how interwoven he and his music were with my “growing up” years, how my memories of him dotted the landscape of my transition from teenager to adult. Much of my “coming of age” experience occurred as Prince became a cultural icon. In that process, perhaps some sense of my identity or self, however small, was rooted in the magic he’d birthed into the world. This must have been true for many who danced Friday night. Did they have similar memories?
I recalled my mom referring to him as “vulgar” a few years before she died. I was too young then to understand why he might have bothered adults, but something about her disdain must have triggered my curiosity enough to lodge the memory. What would she have made of my seeing “Purple Rain” 13 times just a few years later?
I saw it for the first time with my first boyfriend. Given its lascivious content, not to mention misogyny, female objectification, and potentially dangerous glorification of the “standing by your man” mantra – even if he hits you and tries to thwart your dreams – the film’s imprint at the time loomed large, probably especially so for young girls like me trying to make sense of themselves in becoming young women. The message may not have been entirely positive on our behalf, but it was inarguably compelling.
Without the benefit of adult insight about mutual respect and reciprocity, and under the power of the thrill-seeking adolescent brain, the depictions of heated, desperate, dramatic intimacy between Prince and Apollonia (what a name!) were deeply captivating. And his music alongside their courtship left its mark: In “The Beautiful Ones”, he veritably screamed at her, “Do you want him? Or do you want me? ‘Cuz I want you……I know what I want. And if it please you, babe, please you, babe, I’ll beg you down on my knees!” What teenage girl wouldn’t be starstruck by that kind of devotion??
And in the end, he got the girl! His chaotic, violent home life notwithstanding, their pairing won the day. Indeed, she saw him through it and was there when he rightly pronounced, “Baby, I’m a Star”, winning over the previously skeptical crowd with infectious rhythm and energy. Wasn’t this the distillation of every teenage fantasy about our nascent romances? I still remember the day my dad came home with the album for me: I wore that thing out, and it couldn’t have been solely because I liked the music.
Prince had catapulted himself into the stratosphere of adolescent worship, projecting our explorations of love and lust and all their intense emotions onto the big screen and into his music in ways that made him “one of us”, an allegiance that perhaps seated itself in ways we didn’t fully realize at the time. Did we identify with him as though he was some part of ourselves? Is this what we’ve been grieving since his death, some piece of our individual histories that were indelibly attached to him?
Later, not long after I finished college, Prince seemed more than a bit weird: he ran around with the word “Slave” written on his face and changed his name to a symbol. What was the deal with this guy? Were we supposed to take him seriously? I couldn’t yet appreciate his dedication to his craft and his commitment to following his own course, being true to himself, no matter the critical backlash and public perception. Admiration would only come with the advent of life experience, with realization of the courage of conviction it might take to make such a stand. Likewise, my subsequent appreciation for his light-years-ahead challenges to our understanding of gender identity and his intentional support of women in the music industry and as his collaborators, support that seemed to stand in direct contrast to his objectification of them – of us – as sexual objects. Maybe the complexity of this adolescent hero had to be seen through adult eyes.
And of course, there was his music. Funky, sexy, uplifting, irrepressible, inimitable. Who can say how many times they danced to “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Kiss”, and “Raspberry Beret”? How many parties hummed and thumped along because of “Controversy”, “1999”, “D.M.S.R.”, and “I Would Die 4 U”? How would our lives have been different if we had never heard “When Doves Cry”, “I Feel For You”, “Delirious”, and “Little Red Corvette”? Could anyone imagine if a song had never opened with, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called ‘Life’…..”? Would it even be possible to know how many moments of our lives were colored by these creations?
I’ve noticed that among my friends and family most impacted by Prince’s death, we share an abiding connection to music, to its sustenance, power, spirit, and healing. Although I’ve not asked, I suspect music has accompanied many of us through our highest highs and our lowest lows. We literally cannot and could not imagine our lives without it. It has been a companion at times as significant as a dear friend. And thus I imagine we imbue the source of our companionship – in this instance, Prince – with special significance. We have lost the brilliance that created his work. And for that, we grieve. For what he brought to our lives, we are saddened by his loss.
Surely, the reverence with which he was held by countless peers reflected the awesome talent he possessed. But the unique ways in which we each internalized and identified with his contributions perhaps lead us to feel that his passing is indeed a personal loss, if not for the individual himself, then for the way his expressions of himself in the world made us feel. For those parts of us that would not have been as they are if his music had not been at all.
So perhaps those who believe we can’t grieve someone we didn’t know have missed a key point: when someone shares who they are with the world and we find connection there, we have not only come to know them in some fashion, but they have helped us come to know – to be – ourselves. And the sorrow we feel in their passing, though inestimably different from close personal loss, is just as real and legitimate.
In working with grieving clients, I often found it especially helpful to support them in finding ways to maintain a connection to the loved one, to transition their relationship from one alive in present day to one honored and sustained through memory and meaning. For some, this might include planting a memorial garden, championing a favorite charity, compiling a remembrance photo album, or continuing a tradition beloved by the deceased. Although these acts did not necessarily lessen the pain of the loss, they served as a source of comfort in their remembrance and recognition, as a tangible reminder that although the person was no longer present, their impact and significance lived on through the lives of those they touched.
As evidenced by the tributes that began the day Prince died, our ability to memorialize a beloved artist in death is perhaps more readily obvious than a beloved intimate other. The body of work they leave behind makes this possible, all the more so if they seem to have crafted their own anthemic elegy many decades earlier. And in so doing, we are reminded that their memory lives on and remains a blessing to those who carry it forward, even if our eyes occasionally water while we sing…..
“I never meant to cause you any sorrow. I never meant to cause you any pain. I only wanted one time to see you laughing. Only wanted to see you laughing in The Purple Rain…..”