One of the oddly touching responses to the deaths of celebrities in the era of social media is how fans check in on their surviving idols. In agony over their lost heroes — I didn’t know Alan Rickman was sick! What, David Bowie had cancer? — they take the opportunity to thank beloved entertainers while they can. One of my favorite statements to this effect came from writer Jenny Lawson after Alan Rickman died in January: “Lock your doors and look both ways when crossing the street, Neil Gaiman, Prince and Eddie Izzard. I can’t stand to lose any more of you.” God forbid another one goes. And then, God did not forbid: Prince died.
Do we really think we can ward off death before it stalks down another entertainer we grew up with? After Garry Shandling died a few weeks ago, I got to thinking about other comedians I didn’t want to lose. I thought about tweeting Tom Hanks to say, “Mr. Hanks, please exercise regularly and take your Lipitor.”
Part of the outrage over these such passings, of course, is age. Doris Roberts just died at 90 and the prevailing sentiment has been “Ninety! Nice effort.” The ones we cry over seem too young. Bowie and Rickman were both 69. Shandling was 66. Robin Williams was 63. Prince, just 57.
In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion wrote that “when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
Anticipatory grief over public figures not yet dead is something else. In asking these celebrities to eat their veggies and stay healthy, we’re saying, “Don’t take one step closer, Death. Stay right over there.”
We also are fretting the loss of our personal icons — the ones from our private lives.
Rather than tweet to implore Mick Jagger to stay alive, I find myself wanting to say publicly, “Don’t go,” to my parents. I need the universe to bear witness to my testimony that although they did not let me stay out past 11 p.m. when I was 16 and I called them mean and jealous, I get it now, and I’m sorry, and they were right, I was never up to any good past that hour. Also that when I married my college sweetheart, my mother planned a wedding that made the nuptials in “Steel Magnolias” look like a tailgate. My dad always turns up a Little Richard song on the radio, so my mom will dance. These things, and a million others.
Celebrity deaths alarm and sadden us because as they add up, they threaten to deliver us to the unavoidable.
How fortunate, then, that we can reach out to those we will truly mourn soul-deep with more than a tweet. Mom and Dad, I hope you’re reading this. Take your antioxidants. I’ll call you later.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “Penguins With People Problems” and the editor of the online literary journal Musing for Parnassus Books.