When I was looking at Madame Noire over the weekend, I was shocked to see the news that Erica Kennedy had passed away. I instantly recognized her gorgeous face and was hit with memories of blog posts I’d read of hers, and like most people, instinctively wondered, what happened? I tend to get sort of obsessed with death in a weird way, as though I have to read every possible article I can to soak up whatever last bit of knowledge I can of the deceased, and with Erica I was no different, searching the Internet for cues to a question no one had explicitly answered: what happened.
I began to piece together news from some sources, drawing conclusions about what being “found” dead in her apartment meant, with anecdotal stories like those from her friend, Bassey, who writes openly about her bout with mental illness. When it came to Erica, she wrote in a strikingly open post, “I would come to learn that Erica and I had far more in common tha[n] I would have liked. I’m not here to tell her story because she was fiercely guarded and private,” and later adds that Erica recommended alternative medications for her. The inference that Erica may have succumb to a mental illness of her own and consequently taken her own life was there, but it’s a liberty one has to be careful in taking when speaking on things or people which they do not know.
It’s funny because I’d instantly thought about writing an article along the lines of, you never know what a person is going through, but I stopped because I knew I was being assumptive and no matter what I had pieced together from the blogosphere, I still didn’t really know what Erica had been through or what the circumstances of her death were and I realized I needed to leave that alone. Interestingly, on Essence, the magazines’s executive editor has connected the dots in the same way I had in my mind but didn’t dare relate as fact, writing:
“As of this writing, no official cause of death had been released, although the word on social media seemed to link it to her depression. I don’t know if Erica sought help, but if the buzz is confirmed, I do know this: We as Black women have to stop holding it in and start letting it out. Tell somebody. Find somebody to listen. Don’t be afraid. We have to stop pretending everything is okay, like Superwomen on steroids, and start admitting that we can get vulnerable. And sad. And low. And that’s okay.”
The article uses an understandable news hook to speak to a much larger issue black women are dealing with, but as remarks in the comment section show, the message has been lost on the assumptive nature of the prose. Meanwhile on XO Jane, commenters are responding to Bassey’s article, almost demanding that those closest to Erica expose the mental illness the court of public opinion now believes she has, insinuating that keeping her battle private only adds to the stigma of mental illness in our community. While I do agree with that sentiment in a lot of ways, Erica’s battle with depression or whatever other condition she may have had is no one else’s business to out.
When you think about Erica being a writer and the amount of personal information she’d disclosed in her 42 years on this earth, I think it’s safe to say that if she wanted the world to know about her struggles, she would have shared it with us, much like her feminist ideals. I think it’s also a bit naive on people’s parts to not realize that a lot of the stigma surrounding depression and suicide comes from observers who have no idea what it’s like to live that life. Many see suicide as a selfish decision, or even a weak one, and depression as a dramatic mood swing when it is so much more. While there could be a lesson in her life and death if she were known to suffer from any of these conditions, she had and still does not have any responsibility to be that symbol, no more than a homosexual has to come out of the closet and openly declare his sexual orientation. I’m also sure that if it were to be made known that either of these conditions led to Erica’s passing, her reputation and her legacy would change unnecessarily. Like a celebrity has no obligation to share their personal lives with the public, the loved ones of those who have passed on owe us no explanation just to satisfy our curious minds.
Amber Euros wrote an excellent response on the XO Jane posting, encompassing all that is wrong with the way in which we approach unexpected an unexplained deaths. She said:
“I am sharing what I have recently begun sharing with my friends which is: Stop asking me what happened to her. She died. I’m sad. End of story. Can you not understand my sadness without knowing why she is no longer here? Does it make it less sad to know how or why? Is my sadness only justified if her death fits your mental makeshift maslow’s hierarchy of sadness?
WHY is her DEATH not sufficient enough reason to be sad? WHY is her impact on me and the others lives she touch not sufficient enough reason for someone to share their story on how she allowed them to be more open about their own truths?
What age do we live in that the DEATH of a friend does not suffice as reason enough to feel an outpouring of emotions, be they sadness, anger, confusion or otherwise?”
The age we live in is one where we think we are entitled to know everything about everyone (thank you Internet and Social Media) and it’s high time we changed that and started to honor the words we say about someone when they have died: rest in peace.
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