Hey Mama: Kanye West, Neil Gaiman, and Grief Made Manifest

What awards?  The MTV VMAs this year were all about Kanye West and Taylor Swift.

What awards? The MTV VMAs this year were all about Kanye West and Taylor Swift.

Posted by TERESA

Let’s get one thing straight.  I don’t watch MTV.  I haven’t watched MTV in years.  Sure, it might be because I’m too old to enjoy MTV.  OR, as I think is more accurate, the younger people who watch MTV don’t know any better – and certainly don’t know enough to know that the “M” in MTV stands for MUSIC.

But I digress…

I don’t watch MTV, and I’m not really keen on awards shows, either.  I usually only watch the Oscars every year, if that.  As for the rest, I’m perfectly content to look up the winners the next day and go “Oh, that’s nice.”  So, I wasn’t watching the VMAs this week – I was on my computer trying to write a little, and G-chatting with friends.  All of a sudden, Facebook and Twitter started blowing up about Kanye West, and not in a good way.  They were blowing up about this:

I was so angry after watching this.  To see someone whose music I enjoy and whose talent I respect so much stoop to something like this was appalling.  It would have been bad enough if he had interrupted the winner of an award for which he was nominated.  At least that would have made some sense.  But to interrupt someone on stage – a 19 year old winning her first VMA at that! – to “defend” someone who never asked to be defended in order to right some perceived award show wrong?  It was the fact that this act was so inexplicable that made people furious.  It made me upset, too.

It proceeded to be the watercooler topic of choice the next day as people debated what his act meant.  Whether it was premeditated, or merely the spontaneous, drunken act of a rude, irresponsible douche.  Whether it had to do with race.  Whether it was actually spontaneous, or whether it was staged to garner Kanye, or Taylor, or both publicity.  My stance?  One look at Taylor Swift’s face, and you could tell it wasn’t staged.  At least, not for her benefit.  No matter what’s going on with you, once you lash out at other people, you need to be severely reined in. I thought what he did was inexcusable.  I still do.

Yet, the more I talked about it, the more I realized that there had to be a reason.  People just don’t do things like that.  And then it hit me. Kanye West’s mother passed away a little less than two years ago.  Suddenly, it all made sense to me, because I’ve been thinking about grief a lot in recent years.  But first, watch this:

My own mother passed away 3 1/2 years ago, and it’s only within the past year that I realized exactly what that’s meant for me.

Dad, Me, Mom

Dad, Me, Mom

It’s funny, I started seriously thinking about it after going to my first Neil Gaiman signing here in NYC, when he was signing copies of Blueberry Girl at Books of Wonder.  He was late to the signing, and I discovered later that night that the reason he’d been late was that he got a phone call that his father had passed away in England.  I was both amazed and touched that he’d decided to go on with the signing anyway; to pay us the respect of rewarding us for our time standing in line, and also to allow us to help him feel a little better, which he said on his blog we did.  I was so touched that I wanted to do something, write him something as someone who’d also lost a parent…but I didn’t know what to say.  This set the thoughts in motion, though.  I realized that if I were going to tell him anything (I never did, by the way, and I still have half a letter somewhere that was never sent), the main things I would tell him would be:

Little Neil Gaiman with his grandfather and his father

Little Neil Gaiman with his grandfather and his father

1) Don’t feel guilty about forgetting.  You will.  There will be days when you don’t even think about the person you lost at all.  You eventually won’t be able to remember their face, and will need photos to remind you.  That’s OK.  It’s your mind’s way of saying Hold on to yourself.  Live your life.  Move on.


2) Your grief will manifest in ways you never expected.  It won’t always be clawing-your-eyes-out, sobbing grief.  It won’t always be stoic, honorable grief either.  Sometimes, it will be you yelling at the person behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts, because they accidentally didn’t give you the right change.  Other times, it will be you ignoring your friends, or snapping at them just for being near you whilst having fun and joking around.  You might do something incredibly risky just to see if you can, just to see if you’ll come out of it alive.  This won’t all happen neatly immediately after the death, either.  It will sneak up on you a year later after you’ve quit seeing a therapist because you thought you were all better and really why shell out the money for something you don’t need anymore.

This, too, is OK.  Expect it, so it doesn’t blindside you, but know that you won’t be able to control it no matter what you do.  Your mind, and your body, and your heart are going to demand that you grieve, whether you let it or not.  And if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t like to cry in front of people, who doesn’t like being a burden on those she loves, and who tends to go about things with a stiff upper lip and a “suck it up and deal” attitude, the demands of your grieving will force you to grieve whether you want to or not.  And sometimes, you’ll do very stupid things indeed.

Kanye West and his mother

Kanye West and his mother

It became crystal clear to me what was happening when Jay Leno brought up his mother, and Kanye said “Obviously, I deal with hurt….and so many celebrities they never take the time off…I’ve never taken the time off to really…you know, music after music, and tour after tour…it’s just a shame that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt, my dream of what award shows were supposed to be caused…and I don’t try to justify it, because I was just in the wrong, that’s period.  But I need to, after this, take some time off and just analyze how I’m gonna make it through the rest of this life, how I’m gonna improve.  Because I am a celebrity and that’s something I have to deal with.”

He was going through exactly what I was going through – not making time for grief, perhaps getting more drunk than usual more often, lashing out at people who not only didn’t deserve it, but had nothing to do with anything – except he had the added bonus of having a camera turned on him when he did it.

I’ll say it again.  Kanye West’s mother passed away a little less than two years ago.

Two years went by before I went to that Blueberry Girl event and only started to be able to articulate exactly what I’d been doing and what had been happening to me since my mother’s passing.  It seems as though Kanye’s just received his wake-up moment, too, and hopefully he will take that much needed time off and take the time to grieve.

We all wish and hope to go the Neil Gaiman route: be gracious and together in public, grieve in private, and keep our personal grief separate from the way we treat people.  Perhaps it’s something that comes with age?  Gaiman is in his late 40s, and while that’s still young to be losing a parent, one might be more emotionally equipped to deal with it when it happens at that age.  Kanye and I are both in our early 30s and at a time in our lives when we are just starting to do the things that we hope will make our parents proud of us.  To not have them around to see it can truly be devastating.

So while the act itself remains inexcusable, its motivation is understandable.  At least to me.  And I hope the internet will die down a little bit, and not continue to be hard on Kanye.  Because just as it’s inexcusable to lash out at the expense of a 19 year old girl’s feelings, it’s equally inexcusable to get your internet jollies by electronically stoning a man in pain.

Published in: on September 16, 2009 at 12:09 AM  Leave a Comment  
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