Jimi Hendrix. Heath Ledger. Lisa Lopez. Phil Hartman. Anna Nicole Smith. Kurt Cobain. Michael Jackson. Elvis. Amy Winehouse. John Lennon. Ryan Dunn. Marilyn Monroe. Tupac. Corey Haim. River Phoenix. John Ritter. Aaliyah. Bernie Mac. Chris Farley. Notorious B.I.G.. Jim Morrison. And now, Whitney Houston’s name is added to the list of “gone to soon” celebrities…some that had already seen their best days, others that were rising to them. The thing that ties them together was the suddenness of their passing. The thing that sets them apart is how they are remembered.
Our reaction is always the same, even if our individual emotions differ. There is the initial shock of the news…a line or two relayed by a friend or a status update, perhaps breaking news from the television or radio. The mind puts it together…this person is dead. Immediately after the shock is the want for understanding: “What happened?” In some manner, this information will help us form our opinion on the worth of their life…self inflicted? Accidental? Tragic? Expected? Intentional? The answer to that question seems to create the shell in which the memory of their lives will be encapsulated. Phil Hartman, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., John Lennon. These four were gunned down around or near the pinnacle of their achievements. With that realization comes the feeling of “what did they have left to do?” It feels as if something has been taken from us before their time. But it was taken from us by someone else, leaving the feeling that they, and we, have been cheated out of what could have been yet to come.
Lisa Lopez. John Ritter. Aaliyah. Bernie Mac. Also taken quickly and unexpectedly. The initial reactions are still the same, but the difference here is the fact it was “tragic.” Accidental, health related, out of their control. We still have the same feeling of someone taken from us before their time, but there is no blame to be laid. It is something that has happened, and there is nothing we can do about it except mourn and reflect on what was, and wonder what could have been.
And then there are the rest. The ones that are still shocking, still too soon, and yet, the reaction to the cause bitters the taste. Self inflicted. Whether over time or recently, accidentally or purposefully. Drug overdose. Alcohol related. Suicide. When the answer to “what happened” becomes something that could have been prevented, but was completely controlled by the person who has passed, there comes a different kind of sadness. Moments of wondering, “what if they hadn’t chosen that path? What if they had gotten help? What if someone had intervened and they had responded?” Knowing that something these people had chosen to do directly affected their fate makes us feel that little bit differently.
What if Michael Jackson had gotten help for his addictions? What if Kurt Cobain had gotten reprise from his mental torment? What if Amy Winehouse had stuck with her recovery? The “what if” question is what lingers a little longer with these people. And it’s what sets them apart from all the rest.
We have yet to see where Whitney Houston fits in these lists. Opinions have already been formed, and some won’t change regardless of what we find out. But another thing that ties these people together is the immediate mourning that follows their passing, and the reflection on what they accomplished in their lifetime.
Whitney Houston became the first solo female singer to have an album debut at #1. She sold over 170 million albums. She had 7 straight #1 singles. She was the first artist to sell 1 million albums in one week. Her performance of the Star Spangled Banner at Super Bowl 25 is still the standard to which every other singer is measured. It was released as a single and video, and hit the Top 20. The soundtrack to The Bodyguard won Album of the Year. There are countless records that define her as a performer.
Yet we may now remember her for her struggles with addiction. We all know that although she had returned to performing, she was a shadow of her former self. We know that most of her suffering was self inflicted. We will never know if she would have gone on to more great things, or simply be remembered for how she was before. But we do know that she has gone before we expected, and that in the time she was here, she shared her gift with us. That is all any of us can do in this lifetime. And we are the better for it.