When people like J.D. Salinger die, we’re not necessarily distraught over the loss as if it were a person particularly close to us. I think our sometimes inexplicable grief is a reaction to the thought that another piece has broken off the foundation of our frame of reference. Even in his isolation, a refusal to acknowledge any of us, J.D. Salinger occupied an important place in the lives of literary people. He was someone we knew, or at least knew of, and he provided us with a sense of security in a way. When things get particularly bad in the world, we could, if we wanted, say: “Well, at least J.D. Salinger is still in that house over in Cornish, New Hampshire.” There’s something to be said about this. Losing parents, siblings, and close friends tear huge chunks of our foundations out, and that’s a permanent pain that we might learn to live with. Celebrities or cultural icons are small parts of this foundation, but there’s still a feeling that we’ve lost something faintly significant when they’ve gone.
Kurt Cobain committed suicide during my first year as a teacher. I was 25 and my students were 13, 14, or 15. I always resented them for all their skulking around, the crying, the t-shirt wearing, the candlelight vigils, because I always thought Kurt was more mine than he was theirs. All I could do was sit there and watch what I thought was false grieving for someone only I had seen in person.
But maybe Kurt Cobain provided some kind of a small piece of a foundation for these kids, and they were completely surprised by the small hole his death left in their lives.
So it’s sad to lose people like Salinger, Howard Zinn, Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, Tim Russert, Dick Schaap, Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and Walter Cronkite, even if they weren’t necessarily important in the grand scheme of things, because they occupied a small place of stability in our lives.
Who are the people that hold small pieces of the foundation of your frame of reference? Maybe none of us knows until he or she is actually gone.