So this is what mortality feels like. 2016 was the year that many of us finally felt the cold steel of the Grim Reaper’s blade. The string of familiar faces lost was like the notorious body blows of Muhammad Ali…relentless, unforgiving and punishing.
It’s not just that we lost famous friends, it’s that these losses reminded us that the end could come at any time, without warning. We aren’t as accustomed to death as we once were. Our parents often live until we are in our 50’s and even our 60’s and with luck, few, if any of our friends or family suffers with deadly diseases. Until 2016, death was reserved for these fragile people and often a welcome finale to a painful end.
It used to be different—at least in the West. Our parents lived through wars and the constant threat that the cold war presented. From grammar school on, they were reminded that nuclear annihilation could happen at any time (unless they were protected by the safe shelter of their school desk?!). Death was present and somewhat routine, as it still is in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
But, it seems we’ve lived a fairly death-free existence, up until this year. Sure old people like Abe Vigoda and ZsaZsa Gabor passed on and that was easy to accept. They had lived full lives. They were retired and sadly, our first response might even been “I didn’t know they were still around, that’s too bad.”
For years we’ve dodged death, buffered by the news that life expectancy was increasing and that cures to many diseases were near or looked promising. We’ve been lulled into a false comfort zone in knowing that 70 was the new 50, and 50 was the new 30. Then we lost Alan Rickman, Alan Thicke and David Bowie all 69. Suddenly 70, was looking like the end of the line.
Couple that with the unexpected deaths of Carrie Fisher (60), Prince (57) George Michael (how could he be 53) and mortality becomes too real. Even with all this, we were assured by faith, or by really good publicists, that there was merit in living a good life, filled with decency and kindness. These virtuous people (like Mother Teresa who lived to 87) would certainly be rewarded with a good long life and peaceful end.
2016 had other plans. Shining beacons of goodness like Gene Wilder and Muhammad Ali succumbed to 2016 after having inglorious endings. And the presumably immortal Leonard Cohen, like Bowie, warned us that he was done with life (just listen to You Want it Darker which was released shortly before his death) then made good on the threat and left us to wonder, who’s next?
Sure people die every year, probably people close to you, but in 2016, it was different. These icons represented our youth. We could either hold them forever young in our minds or watch them grow old with us. There was warmth and familiarity in seeing Prince or Don Henley and The Eagles perform live with the same fervor as when we first saw them. We looked upon them and thought, “damn they’ve still got it and so do I.”
Then they lost it, and we became lost in grief, in our own mortality. We felt compelled to gather in the streets to mourn heroes like Bowie and Prince or were we really forming a mob against death? We heard of the quiet good deeds of George Michael and the wisdom and courage of Carrie Fisher, of course, because they were good people, but also because we needed to make sense of their swift and pointless ends. Perhaps they stood in for the senseless mass killings we saw pop up with depressing regularity.
For many of us, 2016 was the year death became real. It became relatable. Hell the guy who created Happy Days (Gary Marshall) and the author of the novel that helped guide us to our moral center (Harper Lee) left us. You can’t get more relatable than that. Congratulations death, you’ve achieved top of mind awareness.
So, 2017, keep your damn hands off of Betty White, William Shatner, Bob Dylan, Dick Van Dyke, Willie Nelson and James Earl Jones. Trust me that Anton Yelchin’s freak accident taught us that death is actually part of the cycle of life, no matter how random or undeserving it is.
We get it and now it’s time to put these lessons into practice.
It’s time to embrace 2017 like it’s our last year. We need to do more than make resolutions. We need to act. If you are unhappy with the direction of your career, change it. If you think the political direction of your country is off track, get involved.
These people lost in 2016 lived existence to its fullest, for better or for worst. We mourn their death and we fear the mirror that it produces that reflects upon us, and the stasis that has become our norm. 2017, we resolve to embrace our greater good and to pack each day with achievement, love and fulfillment.
And Death, knock it off. The point’s been made.