Kanye and Grief

Americans are not kind to the bereaved, especially once the funeral is over. Photo by Volkan Olmez

By Kitta MacPherson

Kanye West may be the most misunderstood celebrity alive.

This groundbreaking, wildly successful producer-singer-songwriter is back in the news for reports of public appearances marked by unpredictable behavior and outsized remarks. Right on cue, the social media universe has lighted up with haters, spewing barbs at the entertainer.

The public may be missing the point. This could be a far more ghastly spectacle than the antics of a misbehaved celebrity. We could be witnessing one of the most public exhibitions ever of a person unmoored by grief.

I am a white, middle class, middle-aged woman who lives in the suburbs of New Jersey. I have short, strawberry blonde hair and a figure that could politely be referred to as zaftig. I wear sensible, modest clothes. My idea of a grand time is to visit the Cloisters museum in New York City to see the unicorn tapestries.

I am hardly what you would consider “cool.” I can live with that.

Still, I love Kanye West. I have been a fan of his beautiful, haunting music for years. And I am tired of people picking on this talented man.

Every time this top-selling musician makes headlines via his statements or actions, someone brings up the 2009 incident at the MTV Video Music Awards when West interrupted singer Taylor Swift on stage during an acceptance speech.

I don’t know West personally. And I am a journalist, not a psychiatrist. But, due to my own life circumstances, I know grief. West could be suffering its ravages. His unpredictable, impulsive behavior at the MTV event and others since could well be viewed as the outcome of difficulties encountered in the mind by anyone grappling with the incomprehensible finality of a loved one’s death.

West’s mother, Donda, died a little more than a year before the Taylor Swift fiasco — on Nov. 10, 2007, due to complications from cosmetic surgery. She was 58. Mother and son were close. Donda divorced Kanye’s father, Ray, when Kanye was three. A brilliant woman possessing a doctoral degree in English literature, Donda West was not above sacrifice. In the 2000s, she gave up her post as a department chair at Chicago State University to manage her son’s burgeoning entertainment career.

Americans are not especially kind to the bereaved, especially once the funeral is over. Death is a difficult subject, best to be ignored. One is admonished to “get on with it” and let the past be. Our society fails to recognize that people are in shock for a time after the death of a loved one. Then, for a time, perhaps for years, a person may not be entirely rational.

I never understood real sorrow — its physical pain and mental anguish — until August 23, 2004, when my 49-year-old husband died, like Donda West, from surgical complications. For a year after, I did all kinds of stupid things. After that, my memory suffered and my normally logical mind failed to compute. At times, people would talk to me and I couldn’t grasp what they wanted. My mind was somewhere, just not there.

I was blessed to be working for a newspaper where enlightened editors gave me the time I needed. Our three children, sadly, did not exist in such a forgiving climate. My daughter was singled out and punished by a high school coach for missing swim practices when she visited her dying father at the hospital. My eldest son was permitted to take a leave from college, but not before I paid for the full semester. Those managing the environments inhabited by my children had no go-to template as a response to grief and loss.

In those times I often wondered: How long will I feel as if a part of my heart is missing?

I know now. It takes years — YEARS — before the pain shrinks to a size you can live with. You never “move on.” You will always feel sad but you will mask it. You will think of your beloved daily, even hourly. You will never again be the person you were.

I don’t know who, if anyone, was there for Kanye West when his mother died. It must hurt she is not here to witness his ride of fame as one of the best-selling artists of all time. His song lyrics often signal pain, conveying the sting of personal loss and isolation.

My daughter introduced me to Kanye West’s music in 2007, as we zipped along a highway heading out of Newark. A New York radio station called “Hot 97” was playing “Love Lockdown.”

“This guy is good,” I said.

“Yes, Mom,” said my daughter, who would later work for one of the station’s most famous DJs, Funkmaster Flex. “Kanye West is good. He’s also great.

She bought me the CD that contained the hit and has purchased his albums as gifts for me ever since.

Grieving people don’t want or need pity. We hope for understanding. Compassion.

When I hear people complain about Kanye West’s volatility, I can’t help but wish they could see beyond themselves. In my head, I hear West’s voice crooning a chorus from one of his bestselling songs: “How can you be so heartless? How can you be so heartless?”

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