A few thoughts on grief and legacy

It’s been one of those weeks, hasn’t it? The kind to make us think about our own mortality and what we leave behind.

First musician David Bowie, now actor Alan Rickman. Both Britons who were regarded as being at the pinnacle of their creative professions. Both dead at the age of 69 after battles with cancer.

It’s got me thinking about a couple of things.

Is there a ‘right’ amount of grief?

As usual, there has been an outpouring of tribute and emotion across both traditional and social media. (In the case of Bowie, I rewrote the lyrics of Life On Mars into a parenting parody about kids in cars.)

As usual, public grief has been followed by the arrival of the ‘grief police’, who passed judgement as to what is and isn’t a suitable display of grief.

At times it does seem odd to express a profound sense of loss at the death of someone the vast majority of us have never met. After all, people die in their thousands every day – as a result of terminal health issues, in fatal accidents, as a random victim of crime, war or terrorism – the list goes on. We note those deaths – sometimes they barely register on our consciousness – but we rarely feel moved to mark them with public outbursts.

But, as Leigh from Headspace Perspective writes in her post Celebrities, death and expressing grief, we each have the right to express grief in our own way and we don’t have the right to judge anyone’s grief. It’s a personal thing: no right, no wrong, no perfect amount.

I agree with Leigh and I also think there is something particular about the death of someone who possesses great talent in the creative arts – whether it is music, TV and film, literature, art, whatever – the purpose of whose work is to stimulate an emotional response in the first place.

Art evokes emotion. Emotion evokes memory. And it is our emotions and memories that make each of us unique in this world.

How many of us hear a song or see a scene in a particular film and are immediately transported by association back to the scene of past memories?

It’s not the same as a hard drive calling up an archived file either. Such deep memories are more than just the data of where, when and who. We remember how we felt. We remember sounds and smells. We remember everything, even though it may have been years ago and we’ve already forgotten what we had for breakfast this morning.

Grief is grief. But when a person who is inextricably linked with our own memories passes away, it leaves a mark on us, even if the closest we ever got to them is a concert ticket or a poster on a wall.

Which is why I’ve been listening to Bowie this week and will be digging out Die Hard to watch again over the next few days. (Like I needed an excuse.) And maybe then Galaxy Quest, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Love Actually and some Harry Potter.

Both David Bowie and Alan Rickman mean something to me. And I will grieve for them as I damn well please.

What we leave behind

Which brings me to my second thought.

Those blessed with great talent leave behind a permanent legacy. Bowie’s music. Rickman’s movies. George Best’s ability to work wonders with a ball at his feet. Charlie Chaplin. Albert Einstein. Pablo Picasso.

What about the rest of us? No matter how great or small, none of us is insignificant. To quote from one of my favourite films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life:

Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?

We all leave something behind us when we die. Children, for those of us with families. Possibly something tangible we achieved at work or in our local community. A collection of blog posts, perhaps. Eleventy-gazillion social media status updates, probably.

I’m conscious that my own parents won’t be around forever and that in turn my own health issues mean that my life expectancy isn’t the greatest. What will be will be, but however many years I (or indeed any of us) have remaining before I shuffle off this mortal coil, what kind of legacy will I leave behind and will it be one my family and I will be proud of?

So much to do, so little time.


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