LIVING AND DYING IN THE PUBLIC EYE
Since my mother died, many of the people who come up to me expressing their condolences add, “It must be so hard to go through this in the public eye.” When I answer that I’m used to it, or I say, “No, not really,” they look confused.
If you’ve grown up in the public eye, it’s familiar — it’s your “normal” even though you know, to other people, it seems bizarre. After my father died, and now my mother, the public part was, in a way, a relief. It was the state of limbo before the real journey began. I know how to do the public part, it’s been an aspect of my life for as long as I can remember. But I didn’t know how to lose my father, or my mother. Those are personal journeys — private, often complicated, layered with residue of the past.
The period between a loved one dying and the service is busy with planning and filled with people offering support and sustenance. There is little time to truly process the absence of the person who has died. Once the service is over — even if, in some cases, it’s only a burial service — there is a finality to it, a sense that one phase is ending and a much longer journey is beginning. That’s when it’s common to look around and ask, Where did everyone go?
It’s no different if you’re in the public eye. Sadly, you see who your real friends are after the service is over, after the burial, when life goes on and the flowers that were sent die and you have a pile of thank you notes to write. Some people remain attentive; some vanish. It’s generally a surprise to see who falls into which camp. There were people I never expected to be so attentive and present — people who earnestly have wanted to know how I’m doing — who are now woven into my life in ways they weren’t before. Then there are those few friends who I assumed would be calling or coming by who have disappeared. Nothing but radio silence. It surprised me after my father died; it doesn’t now. I know now how common this is. Whether someone is in the public eye or not, this is just what happens after a loved one dies. Maybe it’s a weeding out process. Maybe it’s a way to see with absolute clarity who belongs in your life and who doesn’t. That’s how I choose to think of it, because looking at it like that leads me to gratitude, which is a far better place to live than anger or blame. I’ve ended up with more meaningful relationships that were forged in the aftermath of my parents’ passing.
One aspect of being in the public eye is that you get messages and support from strangers — the girl at the checkout counter at Whole Foods, someone at the gym who I’ve seen but had no interaction with before. And on social media. A woman who identified herself as “Mrs. Claus” sent several messages to my website that were powerful, and spiritual, and slipped into my heart. I had to laugh a little, that she took the time to write me — and they were well thought-out letters — while a woman who I had considered a close friend hadn’t even called.
Death is the great equalizer. Whether we live our lives publicly or privately, we lose people. We say goodbye and turn back to our lives without them. We’re lucky to have people reaching out, calling, asking how we’re doing, even if they aren’t the people we expected to be filling that role. I’m lucky that, because my family is public, I have gotten some of that from strangers. Mrs. Claus wrote: “It took the loss of many to be able to accept that life is a moment in time and each person’s moment is individual. Some for decades, some for seconds, but each life has meaning for the time it lasts. I rejoice that I had those moments and focusing on that helps me.” She helped me more than she knows, and I have no idea who she is.