Grieving Michael: The Thriller is Gone

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

I always expected Michael Jackson to die young. Remembering Elvis, Hendrix, Joplin and Cobain, it seemed fitting that Michael would join the ranks of great talents taken too soon. All of these talented musicians struggled with substance abuse that contributed to their untimely ends. I’m sad about the lost creative potential of these great performers.
Many of my psychotherapy clients tearfully shared their grief about his death. Some felt silly that it triggered such intense emotion.  They remembered weddings and birthdays where “Billie Jean,” “Beat it” and “Thriller” comprised the soundtrack. Some fell in love while his music played. I remember how adorable my boys looked dancing and singing, “It don’t matter if you’re black or white.”

Some clients felt angry believing corrupt doctors were responsible for his death. Others blamed Michael’s abusive father, or other family members. Some felt angry that news about his death eclipsed more important stories. “What about those we lost in Iraq, and Afghanistan?” “What about the G-8 summit?” they asked.

Those who’ve recently lost a loved one can take the death of a beloved entertainer particularly hard. When you’ve suffered a loss of a job, home, relative, friend or pet, these multiple losses pile up and make you vulnerable to painful grief.  The pain of loss often stirs up feelings of intense anger.

Pioneering expert on death and dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, defined the normal stages of grief as: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance. These stages don’t go in order. Usually we hop about from denial (I can’t believe he’s dead) to depression (I just want to stay in bed all day) to everything in between. Sometimes while grieving we can remain mired in anger’s seductive hold. Anger can gives us energy to cope with life, and make us feel less helpless. Problems develop when we don’t get past anger and move towards acceptance of the loss. If the following concerns trouble you, consider seeking professional help:

  • Trouble accomplishing daily activities.
  • Intense feelings of guilt or sadness.
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless.
  • Isolation from friends and family.
  • Physical symptoms such as weight loss or gain, aches and pains, trouble moving.
  • Persistent thoughts of death and dying.
  • Feel numb or unreal for weeks at a time.
  • Obsessive fear of death.

Your physician can perform an exam to rule out a physical problem and refer you to a mental health professional. If you feel troubled by grief it helps to:

  • Stay close to friends and family.
  • Talk about your feelings.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Exercise in moderation.
  • Remember to eat nutritious food three times a day.
  • Avoid alcohol and other non-prescription drugs.
  • Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day.
  • Accept your feelings without judgment.

Normal grief takes a different course for each person. It’s important to express your feelings so that you can heal more quickly. Make time for activities that give you pleasure and joy, such as looking at old photos or listening to music.  Humor can help too. Remember what Woody Allen said, “There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”