This week last year was pretty awful. Surprisingly, it was already bad even before my mom died suddenly on the Saturday evening, which obviously made it one of my worst weeks ever. But before that happened, I got the news earlier in the week that an old college friend, Linda, had died of cancer. I had only recently learned that her cancer was terminal, and I didn’t expect the end to come so soon.
I was shocked when I got that call, but I didn’t cry. I’m weird about tears — I cry easily, but not always at the things you’d expect. Not yet guessing how many more tears I’d be crying before that week was over, I felt terrible about my friend’s untimely death but I didn’t immediately burst into tears.
A day or two after Linda’s death, Cape Breton singer Rita MacNeil died, and the radio was filled with her songs and tributes to her. Now, I liked Rita’s music, but I wouldn’t call myself a major fan. I’d never seen her in concert; I admired her as someone who’d made something beautiful out of a tough start to life, and I was sorry she died. That was pretty much it. But then, the day after her death, I saw this cartoon and it brought tears to my eyes:
(in case you don’t recognize them, the other figures in the cartoon are also dead musicians from Eastern Canada. But you probably guessed that from context clues).
A few hours after I saw that cartoon, I was thinking of it while driving when Rita’s signature song “Working Man” came on the radio. I started crying so hard I almost had to pull over. When I did pull in to my own driveway I just sat there bawling uncontrollably for awhile. Fortunately I have a degree in psychology, so I was able to make the not-very-stunning deduction that my tears had more to do with the friend I’d just lost than with a musician I’d sort of admired. Music is a big emotional trigger for me, and I often cry when songs come on the radio or we sing hymns in church that awaken memories. But in this case it was the cartoon that stood out in my mind. Why, out of all the tributes to Rita MacNeil I’d seen, did this one move me to tears — and why did that unlock a deep well of grief for the friend I’d lost but hadn’t yet cried over?
It reminded me of another cartoon honouring another dead celebrity — again, someone I’d thought was talented but had not been a devoted fan of — that also moved me to tears. A week or so earlier, writer and movie critic Roger Ebert died, and this cartoon made me choke up a little:
The whole “recently dead celeb arrives in heaven” theme is very popular in tribute cartoons (regardless of the religious beliefs of the celebrity involved or whether they believed in any kind of afterlife at all). And these two really got to me, especially as I reflected on my own losses during that week.
The existence of cartoons like these is evidence of something I see all the time when people are faced with death — even people who have no religious beliefs and are skeptical about any kind of afterlife. We have a deep-seated need to believe, or at least to pretend, that the life of the person we loved is going on much as it used to, on some other plane of existence, in company with those who’ve already died.