Sometimes we have ideas that just don’t work out. For example, when our editors were brainstorming Birthday Issue roundtable ideas we started out talking about parties and cakes and gifts, and then moved to aging, and before the thread was done we’d definitely moved all the way to death. Specifically, which celebrity death’s was the first to affect the way we thought about life? And why? Laneia rightly decided after we’d already solicited answers that the whole death thing was probably going to bring down the Monday morning birthday vibe, so we put a pin in this roundtable. But on Friday, as the internet remembered the death of Kurt Cobain, this roundtable became relevant again and so here we are. As always, we’d treasure your answers in the comments.
Heather Hogan, Senior Writer + Editor
John Lennon was killed the day before my birthday, which was definitely the most shocking and resounding death of my parents’ generation (up until that point). I feel like I spent all of my childhood aging in juxtaposition to the death and legacy of John Lennon. He was everywhere on and near my birthday, what all the adults always talked about while I shoveled cake into my mouth. I actually spent an extraordinary amount of time thinking about him as a kid, listening to the Beatles and wondering about how to live a life that matters. My great-grandmother, Annie B. Cox, one of the most compassionate, brilliant, hard-working women to ever walk this earth, passed away when I was 12. She was the first person close to me who died, and one of the things I remember most about her funeral was standing at her grave, which was covered in daffodils (mine and her favorite flowers), and thinking about how my dad had been sad always a little about John Lennon on the anniversary of his death, but he was crushed by the loss of our B. That’s when I realized that losing B was about losing B, her warmth and grace and generous spirit that had permeated all of our lives; and losing John Lennon was about something else. His death, to my dad, was a reminder that even legends die, and that he’d die one day too. We all would. That seems like a bleak thing to be thinking in sixth grade, but it was very freeing to me. I was born in the world feeling responsible for everyone and everything. It was good to learn there were some things I wasn’t expected to control.
Riese Bernard, CEO
Most pre-teens are sad, to some degree, at least in my experience. I mean, there’s nothing pleasurable about puberty (or the lack thereof while everybody else goes through it), all those hormones, the inevitable divorce of your parents or your fumbling attempts to understand sex in general let alone your own sexuality. So I think we were sad and needed something we cold touch, something to point to, to explain why we were sad because it was weird as a 12-year-old to be in the throes of unbearable depression over a boy not liking you. It was easier to say you were sad about Kurt Cobain. After all, our parents had been very sad about John Lennon — devastated, honestly — and spoke with great reverence towards their sadness over JFK and MLK. Plus Kurt Cobain had killed himself, an act we’d all discussed ourselves, at some point, in hushed tones. So I remember that. I remember feeling very sad about Kurt Cobain. I loved Nirvana, had all their albums. Wore those chunky flannels, felt those feelings, wanted more music. We felt sad for Courtney and for Frances Beane. But depression was stronger than all of it, it turned out. It seemed like his life was going okay, just like it seemed like our country was doing okay, but it wasn’t. Darkness is like that. Impossible to see through.
Erin , Writer
The two celebrity deaths that had me laid out staring at a wall were Aaliyah’s and Whitney Houston’s, when I was 15 and 26. Both were significant to me in a way that I couldn’t fully wrap around at the time, and actually when Whitney Houston died I remember involuntarily saying aloud, to no one, “What’s the point?” Ahaha, as in, “What’s the point in continuing on with our lives?” Collectively. Hello? An angel has died? Both felt like they shouldn’t have happened, like whoever’s controlling the matrix fucked up for a second, so there’s this nagging element to each of them. I believe this is what people refer to as the bargaining phase of grief!
Rachel Kincaid, Former Managing Editor
My favorite memory of a celebrity death (using the words “favorite” and “celebrity” both pretty generously here) was early in my college career when I left a college class to find I had three voicemails in a row from my mom. Obviously I assumed there was an emergency and checked them in a panic; the first one was a langorous, chatty message from my mom that she had left while driving; it covered a few different bases but included that she had been listening to NPR while driving and they had mentioned that writer I loved as a kid, Madeleine L’Engle, and maybe I should look for the segment they were promoting later if I wanted to. The second voicemail was a slight correction, saying “I thought they had said they were going to have her on for an interview, but I think maybe they’re just going to talk about her.” The third voicemail said “Oh, so actually the reason they’re going to talk about her is that she just died. Sorry!” I had really, truly loved L’Engle’s books growing up (I wept like a baby seeing Wrinkle in Time in theaters) but I wasn’t devastated exactly at the news — it was more that it put into focus how I had never considered her someone who could die, because in my head she had existed in the sort of gray area between “already dead” and “eternal” that famous grownups have in your childhood. Being reminded that someone who seemed like a bigger-than-life concept to me as a young child was just a person, one who had had a normal life in a fallible human body and who had died on a random Tuesday felt like a specific part of my childhood was ending.
Carrie Wade, Writer
I never could have predicted that Cory Monteith’s death would hit me hard, but it makes sense in retrospect. I was working in the cottage industry of a cappella at the time — yes, really — and from 2009 until about 2014, Glee was the dominant cultural force in that field. That glorious mess of a show provided the backdrop for what so many groups wanted to do, and it was therefore part of my job to stay on top of whatever new music the cast put out. That meant a lot of time listening to those albums and, by extension, a pretty extensive familiarity with Cory Monteith’s voice. What I always appreciated, as someone working with young musicians he inspired, was that he was clearly not a trained singer to start with. That made him a solid vocal stand-in for a lot of a cappellites who also aren’t seasoned Broadway stars. So when he died, it not only came as a shock for all the understandable reasons — it still seems like it came out of nowhere, even though he’d been so open and honest about his past issues with addiction — but also because a significant figure in my professional life disappeared. I’ve changed careers since then, and I absolutely would have done that even if he’d lived. But with hindsight, I think in some ways his passing was the beginning of the end.
Valerie Anne, Writer
I remember exactly where I was when I found out Shari Lewis died. I was standing in the kitchen at the end of the table, not intending to be there long, maybe hanging my backpack on the end of the chair, when I looked up and the news my parents had been watching on the tiny TV on top of the refrigerator announced it. I remember crying, though I don’t recall if I burst into tears right then and there or mourned her quietly in my room later. I was only 11, but I think that was the first time I realized that anyone could die. The only death I had really been exposed to so far was my paternal grandmother, but Grammie was “old” and I was only five when she died so I hadn’t really internalized it quite the same way. Plus my parents had sat me down and told me gently, I didn’t have the information randomly thrown at me before my afternoon snack. And Shari Lewis wasn’t old! I watched her week after week, jauntily making puppets sing catchy songs with fun voices on Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. And even though by then I was claiming to be watching it for my younger brother because I was “too old” for such shows, I loved it and I came to find Shari a comforting presence in my life. And then she was just…gone. Of course, I had no way of knowing she had been sick, and that technically a lot of the episodes of Lamb Chop we watched were just reruns, and no one ever explained any of it to me. One day she was there, and then she wasn’t. It was a lot for my tiny brain to process, and it definitely had a lasting effect on me.
KaeLyn Rich, Writer
I remember Kurt Cobain’s death because much of the music I listened to around that time was of that same 90’s alternative genre and, like, I was aware of it. Like, it was on the cover of Rolling Stone. I wouldn’t say it was a grief I shared in, though, or pretended to. It was just a sad thing and like, it kind of made sense, too, in the sense that most all of us grappled with ideas of suicide at some point. The death I remember really being shocked by was Aaliyah’s death the summer before I went to college. If Kurt Cobain’s death kind of made sense to me, Aaliyah’s seemed totally senseless. She was at the top of her game and she was just a few years older than me and she just died in a freak accident and it was the first time I fully understood that death could take any of us at any time. Like, literally any day I might die and that would be that. Also, WTF had I even done with my life yet? Definitely not gone double platinum, that’s for sure…
Reneice Charles, Writer
I’ve always been really surprised by how strong others’ reactions can be to celebrity deaths. Even when Whitney Houston, arguably my favorite celebrity of all time, died I realized my version of being devastatingly sad about it was very little compared to most. Which is why when Prince died and I learned the news via a drunk stranger in line with me at the bar where I was waiting to buy a round of shots for my best friend’s bachelorette party in Portland, Maine, I was very surprised when my reaction was to go to the bathroom and cry. Something about finding out so casually, in a very white space far from home, with my drunk white high school friends just was not…what I wanted? Especially cause then I felt obligated to put a smile on my face and get back with those shots before anyone started wondering what happened. Shortly after the news broke the DJ played Raspberry Beret. I was the only person that didn’t stop singing along when the verses came in. After the song ended everyone kept dancing and getting drunker and I was so fixated on my anger around hearing about the death of this artist I loved while I was in a room full of people that didn’t seem to care as much as I did. It felt wrong and disrespectful and I wanted to be home listening to his music and crying into a pillow and then I realized that most likely it will never be the thing that you’re where you want to be when you find out about a death. Death doesn’t give a fuck what you or I want. It’s death. It just happens anytime while the people who will be affected by this new absence are scattered all over the fucking place and it’s messy more often than not, this was just normal. Somehow this super morbid thought made me feel better, and eventually I floated back into bachelorette land to close out the night dancing with people I love.
Stef Schwartz, Vapid Fluff Editor
I wanted to say that David Bowie was the celebrity death that shocked me the most, because I genuinely had not considered what it would be like to live in a world without him (or Prince), but if I’m being real the first celebrity death that hit me pretty hard was Elizabeth Taylor. Whether she was the original dreamy horse girl in National Velvet or an impetuous bitch in uh, pretty much everything else, she was a goddamn icon and I loved her like she was my kooky rich great aunt. White Diamonds forever.
Laneia Jones, Director of Operations
I was 8 years old when Rebecca Shaeffer was killed in her doorway by a stalker and I just couldn’t process it. First of all, I’d somehow been under the impression that actors lived in secret mansions with security guards, so it was shocking to learn that Rebecca had lived in an apartment and that anyone could just walk up to it and ring the doorbell. This was also my intro to stalkers in general, and the fact that some people could think they loved you so much that they had to kill you. I was inconsolable and terrified, and I remember being so confused about this guy’s motivation, because I’d also loved her in My Sister Sam and thought she was beautiful and really truly wished she could be my babysitter, but I’d never thought about killing her, so I spent a really long time worrying that I’d accidentally love someone too much and then want to kill them. My mom had to go over the details of the case with me several times because I just couldn’t get my head around it and kept being afraid someone would kill one of us when we answered the door or that one of us would decide to kill someone else. I just couldn’t understand it! Her murder really laid the foundation for my understanding of male violence and that no one was immune to it, and had me worrying about my own untimely death from then on out.
Molly Priddy, Writer
I wrote about when Princess Diana died in my journal, because I couldn’t quite wrap my 12-year-old brain around how she’d died in a totally normal, un-princessy way. It was the first time in my childhood that I realized death takes everyone. I’m not sure why this one death in particular struck me — I’m pretty sure Mother Theresa died the same year and as a kid raised Catholic, that was technically the bigger deal — but I remember writing in my journal and feeling a little bit of childhood falling away. It was one of the moments when I look back now, I can see I was growing up and growing into my pre-teen emotional depths and didn’t really know anything about Diana or her life other than it seemed like a huge waste of potential when she died.