Jaci Stephen: ‘Behind every celebrity death is a band of friends and relatives in mourning’

Way Out West
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The Independent Online

Above clouds, you can believe in anything. Flying west to east, into daybreak, the sun is always rising; east to west, it sets in silence, always perfect. Sometimes, I feel close to the heaven of my childhood imagination. Up there. Beyond. Closer to the God I was told lived in the sky.

The transatlantic journeys that, just a year ago, were filled both with excitement at the prospect of change in a new country, or coming home to see family and friends, are now times of strange, intense reflection in a year that has seen so many loved ones disappear from my life.

My screenwriter friend Blake Snyder, who inspired me to come to LA, and who I have written about so much, died suddenly in August. My dear friend Keith Waterhouse died in September. Yes, he had enjoyed a long life, but that never makes a loss less keenly felt. My auntie Monica died suddenly in October. And, this week, my dear, beautiful and talented friend Angharad, who had been ill for months, died, suspected of having taken her life at the age of just 47.

Each time I fly now, it is to attend a funeral, memorial service, or to be close to people with whom it is possible to share memories. This week, in particular, knowing the devastation that Angharad’s siblings must be feeling back home, I just wanted to get on a plane again and head back to the UK.

Until I know the plans for a service, I am staying in LA, but have again been astounded by the enormous comfort Facebook has provided during this time. I found out about Blake’s death on Facebook, and shocking (literally) as that was, over 600 people left messages on his page that made one feel part of a community united by grief.

On Saturday, messages started to appear on Angharad’s Facebook page, too. A clever, funny and insightful woman, she seems very much there, and it is hard to imagine the pain and desperation that brought about this tragic end. Having spoken only to a couple of friends and left messages for one of her sisters, being such a long way away I felt able to make some kind of contact through Facebook, with strangers feeling just as helpless as I did.

The experience of these very personal losses is in stark contrast to death Hollywood style, and makes life here seem even more unreal. In 2009, the non-stop TV coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, and the way the town came to a standstill for what felt like weeks, turned death into the must-have accessory of the season. Some people have

indeed turned their experience of stars’ passing into a full-time job.

Celebrity death is always big news here. Before Christmas, we saw the death of actress and singer Brittany Murphy and, last week, the Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson. TV cameras were outside the latter’s home for hours, continually reporting that there was no news and nothing to report. But that didn’t stop journalists standing outside the dead woman’s Hollywood home, reporting that there was (still) nothing to report.

Then, on Friday, there suddenly was. There was a fracas outside the home, from which Casey’s two small dogs were being taken, allegedly to be put down so they could be buried with their owner. Casey’s girlfriend/fiancée Tila Tequila, was hysterical, as the pooches were bundled into another friend’s car.

Hollywood death is such big business here, there is even a site called hollywoodmemoir.com, which features “recently died famous Hollywood celebrities, actors’ health, accidents, and major news”. “Searching for Hollywood death?” says one headline, before pointing you in the direction of “Death Hollywood at Amazon”.

There are discussion boards and blogs too. “Is it just me?” asks one, “or are there almost no deaths in Hollywood lately?” Moral: never write a blog like this on 8 December.

Death can be a niche market, too: for example the section detailing “Wrestlers Who Died” (Bad News Brown, aged 63; Hercules, 46; Johnny Grunge of Public Enemy, 39 – of sleep apnoea complications – there really is a Hollywood movie just crying out to be made here).

And should you wish to do your research according to method of passing, you can just click on one of the headings under “Major Causes of Death”, which are: accidental, cancer, drug, heart attack, heart failure, lung, natural cause, suicide.

It all feels a far remove from the real thing, yet for every one of these Hollywood deaths, too, there is a band of friends and relatives mourning their loss. Life doesn’t get any easier. But above clouds, you can sometimes believe.

To read Jaci Stephen’s blog in full, go to: LANotSoConfidential.blogspot.com

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