There’s a set of garages to rent as storage units near my workplace. One of them is taken by a local florist that uses it to store flower arrangements for various events, that are more often than not funerals.
As such, at least once a week at 8am I will pass a car being loaded up with flowers arranged into heart shaped patterns or the letters M U M. It is a grounding reminder that, as I mentally grumble my way through the upcoming arbitrary grievances of my ordinary working day, a group of family and friends locally is going through the hardest time. It provides much needed perspective on days when I could do with being reminded of all that I have to be thankful for.
These little moments explain to me why it is possible for us to share a communal loss when a celebrity passes away. Grief is often a personal and lonely experience, shared between a minority of people in your life. When a co-worker loses a relative or friend, it has little affect on me, bar signing off a holiday form and a quick condolence. “My thoughts are with you” I’ll message, but the sad truth is that within seconds their grief is far from my mind. This is just the way that it is for all.
But the nature of celebrity allows people to grieve in unison. You feel a little silly for being sad that somebody who once played for your football team or starred in a sitcom that you enjoyed has gone, as you never knew them in real terms. But when your social media is full of similar grief being shared by people that are friends, or your favourite singer, or even that person that you know from Beer Twitter, then the experience is a collective. It is unique. It is different to that of a loss of a dear uncle or an old university friend that others around you didn't know.
Unfortunately, when addiction and suicide are involved, it allows for other characteristics to surface.
"We swallow our feelings, even if it means we're unhappy forever" - Chandler Bing
At time of writing, there is no confirmation of the cause of death of Matthew Perry - beloved actor best know for playing Chandler Bing in the sitcom Friends. But there is enough hearsay to cause online discussion. What we do know is that Perry suffered with addiction throughout his adult life, as detailed in his own memoir, as well as across numerous interviews. Perry was open about his struggles in his quest to recover, but also to help others in similar situations.
There is a term used for the likes of Matthew Perry, that is meant by those that use it to be a kindly description of their internal struggles – "A Troubled Soul." This phrase is often brought out for those suffering with addictions, or behavioural problems, or Mental Health issues. It is a blanket definition of people that are different. Not bad people. Just different. Struggling. The people that use it don’t mean to be unkind or condescending.
The problem is that when people hear of a “Troubled Soul” passing then the reaction includes another phrase: “They had their issues, so…”
To use a Friends quote: “What is the end of that sentence?”
So… it is good that they died?
So… they couldn’t be saved?
So… they deserved it?
People mean a mixture of all of those things. And it isn't okay.
Similarly to the use of “Troubled Soul,” most people are not intentionally alluding to issues that they may have had in life in a malicious way. People are trying to express their feelings as general hope that the person has found peace at last. I understand this.
But the approach to addiction, or Mental Health problems, or suicidal thoughts shouldn’t be to hope that people find peace through the afterlife or assume that there is only one way out, otherwise any of us that suffer should give up now. These are the reasons that we struggle to talk more openly about it.
There’s an extra hurt feeling for those of us that suffer from some of the same issues as somebody that passes; especially when that problem is linked to the cause of death. As I wrote about when Anthony Bourdain passed, there's collective pain for all survivors.
Hearing others try and empathise by suggesting that this was the only solution is extra painful.
"You’re just a person who is talking who is wrong" - Matthew Perry
Part of me wishes that I hadn’t come across this table discussion with Matthew Perry and pretend journalist Peter Hitchens, but it is worth watching as it shows so much of the stigma and gross misunderstanding of alcoholism and other addictions. I’ve raised before how, even within the small online beer communities, the way alcoholism is perceived is both wrong and disgusting. It is difficult to be cured when so many refuse to understand. They have their depiction of an alcoholic and the causes of it and stick resolutely to it. It could never be them, they seemingly think, and so it is the fault of the addict.
You just need to have the will power to stop is a sentiment that I’ve heard too many times. It is a statement that, though worded differently, I have seen on my beer forums frequently.It is worrying that it can still exist so prominently in our little communities.
Perhaps it is less surprising to see it pop up in my Whatsapp groups with various friends. Not a single incident or death manages to avoid the Meme treatment within certain groups, and I actually found out about Perry's death via a distasteful "joke" landing in my messages.
Maybe some reading this will be horrified but most will be familiar with the practice. I'm not going to fall out with friends of mine for their crap taste in humour. But I do note that, despite knowing my history and issues, they still think it acceptable to drop these images into groups that I am a part of. I know to never turn to them if I find myself stood at the end of that metaphorical and physical bridge again. They could be horrified by their actions reading this or they might think that I should lighten up; the damage is done either way.
The language that we use around sensitive matters is important. If you truly care about your friends and loved ones who may have serious Mental Health issues or problems with Addiction then you'll start to consider the cure more than the outcome. When Alcohol killed my Dad it was easy to say that he "found peace," but that was not the preferable outcome. He may have been a "troubled soul" but we didn't want him to find peace away from this physical plain - we wanted him to find it here. There is little comfort to be taken from those words.
I find myself sad over a celebrity death again; a reminder of the fight so many are facing. It hurts. It hurts to know that, despite the face of the struggle, we can still lose. I don't want to lose. I want to be here a little longer. I want to be Mark Johnson. Or even John Markson.
It begins with listening to others.