The day after Heath Ledger died, exactly 10 years ago today, I arrived to seventh grade homeroom wearing a white T-shirt I had decorated after hearing the news. I pinned a photo of Heath Ledger onto my chest, and unearthed fabric markers from the craft drawer to write “R.I.P Heath” in gaudy pink fluorescent script. As it turns out, I am the kind of person who deeply mourns a celebrity loss. I was 12, and just finding this out about myself.
Honestly, Heath wasn’t even my favorite actor. My favorite actor, whose torn-out magazine photos lined the inside of my red locker, was Johnny Depp. I would travel with him through many poor acting decisions, abandoning him only when his eccentricity became a flimsy cover-up for alleged abuse. But Heath was my first celebrity loss. The first time a star in the twinkling firmament of Hollywood was snuffed out.
In school that day, my classmates treated me with deference, like I had lost a person who was important to me. And wasn’t he? I wept for an hour watching Brokeback Mountain, and listened to the soundtrack during long car rides (“The Wings” is a perfect song). Ten Things I Hate About You taught me that long hair is a weakness of mine. The first boy's hand I ever held was in a movie theater during The Dark Knight. Essentially, Heath Ledger’s movies were flags in the sands of my formation. My shirt was an display of grief to the other seventh graders whose taste for pop culture, perhaps, burned less ardently. But at least I had taste, I told myself. At least it constituted so much of me that I’d express it through arts and crafts (and later, through essays).
So I made a shirt, and I gave myself a day to publicly mourn along with the rest of the world. As the days went on, the news changed, but I was still sad. Sad in a way that wasn’t justifiable or appropriate, considering Heath Ledger and I were as many degrees apart as two people could possibly be. Sad in an existential way, because his death forced me to confront the fact that fame and wealth aren't antidotes to mortality. That celebrities’ lives fit into the same cruel, rigid parentheses the rest of ours do.
Up until then, I thought of celebrities as a pantheon of gods and goddesses, only Mount Olympus was Hollywood and the gods starred in movies, not myths. Heath Ledger fell into the Apollo category: Young, cheeky, and boundless. When he died suddenly and surprisingly, I lost the Tuck Everlasting-inspired hope that maybe some of us, the best and brightest of us, were immune. The logic proceeded in its own gruesome way: The celebrity gods would not be spared, and neither would I.
I never made another celebrity "in memoriam" shirt, because I grew up, and now try to veer away from public acts of overt emotion. For celebrity losses going forward, I dipped my toes into the world's collective grief almost guiltily, because I recognized I hadn’t lost anyone I knew personally. And yet — the world rang emptier, and I still was sad. When Alan Rickman passed away, for example, my sister and I woke up to actual messages of concern from our friends who had witnessed us communicate exclusively in Alan Rickman memes, back when people actually communicated through Facebook walls. When Leonard Cohen died the day after Donald Trump was elected, I played "Anthem" and read obits instead of the news. Lately, I have pangs of fear in anticipation of certain octogenarians’ obituaries.
Ultimately, celebrity deaths are self-reflexive. We feel bad for the families and people they left behind, but mostly, we think about ourselves, and what their art has meant to us. We read think pieces and nod. We tweet earnestly. We watch Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in The Force Awakens, and pronounce that we’ll play it for our children someday so they know what movies look like.
Celebrity deaths are all metaphorical supernovas — the star dies, but what he or she leaves behind (the art) takes on a more powerful glow. It’s a collective pause, a moment in which we consider the footprints an artist has left on our own timelines. Love, for me, will always be shaped by Heath Ledger slamming Jake Gyllenhaal into the side of a house in Brokeback Mountain. And loss will be shaped by sitting on my computer at 4 p.m. reading news that a beloved 28-year-old actor had died in his sleep. For me, Ledger's death brought celebrities down with the rest of us mortals, and elevated their art to the stars.