The past few weeks have been filled with the deaths of acclaimed scientists, political veterans and cultural giants. They are men and women of advanced age who have succumbed to a variety of chronic ailments or simply to the passing of time. They enjoyed long lives and accomplished a great many things; theirs were not lives cut short, but rather ones that followed a gloriously long trajectory.
And yet their deaths seem especially sad, not because their lives were of any greater inherent value than a Jane Doe who might have died anonymously or a singular relative in a quiet corner of a small town who left this Earth surrounded by friends and family, but because their particular prominence was a bright reminder of something that seems endangered or wholly missing in these times. They were warming lights in the midst of darkness.
They were complicated just as everyone is, but their deaths are a reminder that the culture has little ability to stomach nuance and complexity, shades of gray and the middle ground. The details of their lives fill books, perhaps they have even pontificated in their own memoirs. But the heartfelt sorrow over their deaths is more often sparked by a minute detail in the grand sweep of their story, an intimate moment amid all of the public accolades, a disappointment faced with aplomb.
Take Harry Reid, 82, masterful in the Senate and often explained through his origins as a schoolyard brawler from Searchlight, Nevada, without the recognition of the boxer’s power, precision, controlled aggression — and grace.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 90, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work advocating for justice and equality during the anti-apartheid movement. He was a proponent of nonviolent protest, yet he also recognized the visceral challenges in containing one’s righteous anger and keeping faith in the elegance of compromise. He could argue against his own beliefs and see how his political temperance could prove frustrating to those seeking revolution. He could see himself with certainty, as well as through the eyes of others, and because of that his death resounds even more powerfully, because this is a time when our vision has clouded over so thickly that some of us no longer even recognize whom we see in the mirror.
The Pulitzer-winning naturalist Edward O. Wilson, 92, knew all there was to know about the secret life of ants, and he used that knowledge to tell the world about the importance of biodiversity and how humans are inextricably linked to the natural environment. His death was an opportunity to consider what it means to be intellectually curious for the entirety of one’s life, to pursue knowledge simply because one can.
It’s hard not to compare his lifetime of fealty to science with these times when intellectual rigor has to battle with rumor, quackery and misdirection for the public’s attention. Wilson’s work sought to understand the ways in which all living creatures are connected. The loss underscores how thoroughly we’ve disconnected from one another. In the midst of the pandemic, so many of us can’t resist declaring that we’re islands unto ourselves — a notion more easily believed when technology has allowed us to be efficiently and effortlessly disengaged from our community.
These recent deaths are not part of the avalanche of heartbreaking news connected to COVID-19. They are part of the familiar cycle of life, not the devastating result of a pandemic. That may also be why they seem especially unnerving. Right now, just when people could use emblems of patience, grit, calm and comity, the culture has endured a steady stream of loss that adds to the sense that everything is crumbling to bits. That emotionally astute author, the eminence grise, the institutional memory. They’re gone. The culture is just a bit more adrift.
Joan Didion, 87, died and so did a benchmark of clear-eyed consideration of American culture. Of course, her writing lives on, but there will be no fresh words to bring insight to this period of upheaval or the next particular era or the next. It’s a bit of an exaggeration of the kind that Didion would probably detest to say that some grand era has ceased to exist. But a sense of continuity has been disrupted — a feeling that the ground has shifted. It’s a feeling akin to when an older family member can no longer organize the big consequential gatherings and for a while a younger generation looks blankly around wondering: Who will step up? Or will the family just crack apart?
A host of renowned people have died at an age when it seemed they likely still had so much to contribute: cultural critic Greg Tate, 64, feminist leader bell hooks, 69, director Jean-Marc Vallée, 58. We mourn them for different reasons: because we knew them to be healthy and vibrant, because they were too young to die, but mostly because the suddenness of their deaths reminds us of the capriciousness of life.
People die and we want to know how old they were. That number is how we measure whether they had a fair ride — ample opportunity to accomplish something or simply to enjoy themselves. We use age as a benchmark to assess a life, as if great accomplishments cannot come at any time. Sarah Weddington, 76, successfully argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court when she was just out of law school. She was only 26 years old. Her place in history was sealed at the dawn of her career.
Sex therapist Shirley Zussman made her mark through her longevity, continuing to see patients until she was 105, according to her obituary in The New York Times. She died at 107. And the great confectioner Sylvia Weinstock, 91, was 50 when she devoted herself full time to the cake artistry that would make her famous. Weinstock was creating glorious cake wonderlands before the dawn of Instagram. She was an influencer before that was a job description.
As we mourn the dead, we make peace with their flaws and appreciate their talents. We reminisce about their sense of humor, their kindness and their generosity. The statesman Bob Dole, 98, is memorialized in the same pages as the fashion editor Grace Mirabella, 92, and the children’s book author Beverly Cleary, 104. All of them shaped the culture, and their deaths leave us longing for something that they represented. Dole was the military veteran with political ambition whose death reminded Washington that it wasn’t always so inhospitable to compromise and civility, let alone facts. Mirabella, a former editor in chief of Vogue who rebounded from being fired to launch an admired glossy that bore her name, believed style was a conversation starter but should not be the entirety of its content. And Cleary saw childhood in all of its scary, joyful, boring reality.
They were reminders of what it means to be flexible in a world that has gone rigid. They recognized that the very things that complicate life can also power us through it. We are not one thing or the other. We are a host of messy bits and pieces. And we mourn them because they made being fully human both an admirable and daunting accomplishment.
Robin Givhan is the Washington Post’s senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.
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