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Michael Jackson and The Five Stages of Grief: Depression

2 July 2009 15 Comments

I don’t remember seeing Bambi, but I was about four years old when I saw Frosty The Snowman. My father was upstairs doing whatever adults do and heard a piercing scream come from the den. He rushed downstairs expecting to find a child with a cracked skull or a nail in her foot, but I was just sitting there, screaming and crying in one healthy piece. “What’s wrong? What happened?” he asked. I poked my lip out and shouted: “FROSTY MELTED!!!!!!!!”

After screaming like a banshee for a few more minutes I started breathing normally again and Daddy explained that Frosty would be back next year. Still, I knew Frosty was dead, and no amount of Christmas cheer was going to bring him back. That’s when I realized what death is, that it’s beyond our control, and that worst of all it involves missing someone that you can’t have back no matter how badly you want them around.


I have been asked the same marginally stupid question a few times this week – why are you sad about it? You didn’t know him personally, they say, and the music and videos you always had are all still there. Nothing has changed, death is inevitable for us all, and the personal relationship that his stardom created with the world is nothing but a media-driven illusion. So why have I been playing the wallflower at every party I’ve been to since June 25 (aside from the Michal Jackson tributes)? Why did I cry when I heard the terrible news, and again for a few days afterward every time I heard someone say the words “dead” and “Michael Jackson” in the same breath?

The obvious reason is that a fifty-year-old black man with three children passed away suddenly. Sure, it happens all the time but that doesn’t make it any less sad when it does. Beyond this, the cold-blooded naysayers have a point: we thought we knew Michael Jackson. He was and still is one of the most carefully constructed brands of the twentieth century. The glittery glove, his signature ad-libs and dance moves, his penchant for animals, and even his unpredictable weirdness and controversy – all were part of something as familiar to us as McDonalds or Coca-Cola. Never mind that he was a living and breathing person; part of the Michael Jackson machine was the creation of a personality whether it was real or not. Since I’m always pragmatic about such things I’m sure that the impression we had of the man himself was at least partially accurate. It’s so much easier to believe that he was warm-hearted, sensitive, and a little bit sad, and everything from his philanthropic actions to his outward demeanor support that belief. It doesn’t do us any good to believe that it was all an illusion and he was actually a jerk. Even if so, we all knew that jerk and it’s sad that he’s gone. Had Michael Jackson and I been close personal friends my level of functioning would be immeasurably lower than writing an essay per day devoted to his death, but I think it’s acceptable (and healthy) to be sad about the death of someone we (kinda) knew. More than almost anything, death itself has the power to remind us of our own mortality and that of those around us. It’s a tempting, but useless, mindspace to dwell in, while remaining very real and lasting.

I console myself with the fact that the naysayers are right – all of the music that we loved is still here. The wrinkle in this source of solace is my fear that Michael Jackson’s death – not the fact that his final album was his worst selling or that Americans seemed to have ‘gotten over’ his mystique – marks the clear end of an era in great popular music. The old “things aren’t what they used to be” belief is something that every generation declares as it ages, but Michael Jackson was one of the few artists that my entire family could enjoy together and equally. The fact that we could do so, and as a consequence, the extent to which everything about the MJ magic was a huge part of my childhood, makes this loss a stark line in the sand between “the old days” and “today.” That level of cross-generational enjoyment is not something I currently see in popular music, and as much as I hope for its return only time will tell.

There’s a final layer of sadness that I can’t help but dwell upon, one that has more to do with my attachment to Michael Jackson as an iconic figure in black pop culture. I always believed that Michael would make a comeback, and I’m not just talking about a bunch of concerts or even him reaching a point where he felt personally satisfied with his career. I really wanted Michael Jackson to escape his hopeless weirdo status and the sadness that came with it. I needed to see something click in him that said you know what, I’m MICHAEL JACKSON and y’all betta’ recognize. Maybe he could even whip off his wig and throw it in the audience or something, I don’t know…I think many of us are sad because not only was his life obviously cut short, we know there was something left for him to do here.

Throwback Video: “You Can’t Win,” The Wiz

Previous: Part 3 of 5, Michael Jackson and The Five Stages of Grief: Bargaining

Next: Part 5 of 5, Michael Jackson and The Five Stages of Grief: Acceptance


  • hottnikz said:

    I can relate to this, I’m still sad about his untimely death. It’s like Mike was my cousin.

  • ill Mami said:

    As I’ve said before, these essays are so well-written. And making me realize that a full dissertation on Michael is needed before I can truly accept that he is gone.

    I loved 2 things about this piece: (1) your mentioning of the cross-generational appeal of Michael’s music and (2) the “stark line” that his death has meant for all of us. It is this line that brings our mortality into light, and the fact that so many things that we know and love are gone.

    I was watching the “Say Say Say” video the other day and realized in one scene that 2 out of 3 people present in that scene were dead, Mike being one of them.

    Out of this entire week-long process since his passing ( I can’t write or say “death” yet), I am realizing and have accepted that I’m NEVER going to get over this. I will be a 70-year-old woman still looking wistlful and teary-eyed when I think of Michael.

  • gas safety london said:

    it’s all so very sad and sudden!

  • Stacy said:

    That’s exactly it– I was just waiting for Michael to come out with the new album that would blow everyone away. It would be even bigger than Thriller and would finally shut those naysayers up once and for all. People would remember that he was the greatest entertainer this world has ever seen and respect him again. I knew he would do it eventually… if he only had more time here on this earth. Alas it will never be and that’s just so crushingly sad :o(

  • lello said:

    Cross-generational music is a relic now, and that’s the stuff of tragedy.

  • LJS said:

    I’m still bargaining…and sad….and just PISSED OFF! I am all the stages in one big pot of grief over MJ. Don’t you have another stage to write about- I need to read it cuz I think that one is supposed to help me out a little. ; ) Thanks for your very thoughtful essays.

  • Cynthia said:

    The memorial today had me depressed and sad….

  • Mary said:

    I’ve been in such a funk since his death. In and out of teary-eyed episodes. It’s been hard for me to find words to express what I’m feeling. And I’m embarrassed to be so sad about someone I don’t know, especially since I know there are so many other tragedies in this world that require our attention right now.

    But this article really helped me, because it does put into words so much of what I’ve been feeling. And more importantly it lets me know that there isn’t something wrong with me for feeling this way. Thank you.

  • BlackWomenBlowTheTrumpet said:

    Hey Thembi!

    Gurrrrrl…. I know you were in front of the telly for the entire Michael Jackson Memorial! Did you call off of work just to see it? I know you did!! I can’t wait to see your post on your impressions of it all!!

    Jennifer Hudson *yawn*

    Will someone please find her another stylist who will choose dresses for her that are flattering. She’s about nine months pregnant but that dress that was above the knee was just not the best choice if she was intending to look regal…

    Usher *yawn*

    I had never heard him sing before in my life. Now that I have… well… he sings…but I didn’t encounter a mega star… it’s good that he has a great PR team because he will not be a legend in R&B if that is what he’s going for…

    Magic Johnson *chuckles*

    Why did he give KFC a free plug when they were not paying him? Wait, we don’t know that KFC didn’t pay him…the tabloids will let us know in a few days!

    Al Sharpton *raised brow*

    I am not sure why Al Sharpton was chosen for the eulogy… I don’t understand that at all. But apparently he was loyal to the family and so they wanted him there…

    My prayers go out to his family and his children for all the pain that they are feeling…

  • Janet said:

    I totally agree with Mary on this one. I don’t think this young generation of ours has experienced the taking of one of our icons. Michael was ours as well as the very young (my 5 year old nephew) and old (my 58 year old dad). What is a world without Michael? As long as I can remember he has been there with a new incarnation of himself wowing us every time. I feel silly, ashamed, and frightened at how much of a blow this is. We all loved Michael and we are collectively feeling the breaking of our hearts. It’s the end of an era and his death marks the shift in time and events like the way we use BC and AD. He’s that monumental to us. I’m thinking about being a little girl in grade school and having someone ask me my name.
    “Janice, you said?”
    “No,Janet. Like Janet Jackson.”
    “Oh, do you have a brother named Michael?”
    :sighing: “No”

  • lola gets said:

    I LOVED this series, Thembi! I, too, will miss MJ.

  • Tilde said:

    Thanks it feels good to not be alone grieving a person you didn’t know. I though I was weird or maybe I am.

  • Simone said:

    I am still sad about this even after almost 5 months. And I think it’s mainly because he was the only constant figure that a lot of us had from the time we were kids until now. I’ve been a fan since I was 5 and remained even through all of the accusations and criticisms. My mother was a Jackson 5 fan before me and influenced me to become a fan. Now my 2 and a half year old is dancing around our house in a fedora to “Smooth Criminal”. I mean he broke down so many barriers, surpassed so many expectations and broke so many records, how could he not be regarded as and icon. The saddest part is because he was such an influence that now we don’t have someone to take the spot. Almost everyone that has come up behind him has taken something from him. If he would have died of old age in his own bed at 90 years old, his fans would be happy that he lived a full life and hopefully had some grandchildren around him and was finally at peace. One thing we can say is that he is at peace now. Now we are the ones who have to find some peace.

  • Abram Dailey said:

    I really miss Michael Jackson. He is truly the greatest pop singer of the century. Farewell king of pop..

  • Aida said:

    I am extremely sad as time goes by. At first I was sort of numb – I was the same when my father was killed – but as time passes, the loss becomes even more apparent to me. Can’t exactly put it into words. If I’m being honest – and I know many will not understand this – I am even more sad over Michael’s passing than that of my father. I know the exact reason for that though – my father had lived a happy, healthy life, loved and was loved back. But Michael always felt lonely and sad, and as I listen to some of his recorded conversations with friends, or those who pretended to be friends only to later use the tapes to profit from his passing, I realize that even his music and success was in hopes of being loved – it is what he said. I won’t pretend I “know” Michael based on a few recorded conversations he had, but they do give some insight into his emotions and feelings about himself. To me, though obviously troubled, Michael was one of the most normal people there is, but we live in a world where one must conform, and his choosing to remain pure at heart brought him a great deal of pain. IN his younger days, he once said he would like to meet someone special and disappear with her some place away from everyone. I wish he could have experienced that. I wish he could have experienced and allowed unconditional love into his life, someone who would have stayed with him at least long enough to make him look in the mirror and love himself with all his flaws. He made millions of people happy, yet was so sad and lonely all his life, apart from his children. I search for videos, articles, anything that would let me know that he was happy in his personal life and with himself, but the only happy videos of him I find is when he spoke of his music. Yet even that, as he explained, was in hopes of being loved. Maybe if I knew that he was finally happy with himself and loved by a special someone for all that he was , I could let go and be at peace. For now, it is difficult not to cry and feel extreme sadness every time I hear his song and the pain in his voice.

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