Parts Unknown: Grieving for someone I never met

Screengrab from Anthony Bourdain’s documentary, of Anthony laying down with his hands above his head.

Content warning for suicide and mental illness:

I find it difficult to articulate why I might grieve for a famous person like Anthony Bourdain. As with every passing of a person-of-note, anyone daring to show any emotion at that event is often met with cries of, “You didn’t know them”. Ignorant it may be, this statement is still true, and it is true of my relationship with the late chef, broadcaster, journalist, and writer.

I did not know Anthony Bourdain, yet my continued grief over his death hangs over any interaction I have with his body of work. It even hangs over that last sentence — the regret that my prime association with the man is through his body of work, and not the actual person.

The Anthony Bourdain that hosted legendary travel shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations, the Anthony Bourdain that wrote a long line of both fiction and non-fiction like the acclaimed Kitchen Confidential, the Anthony Bourdain that you see in quotes and GIFs on Twitter extolling the virtues of Waffle House and the humble hamburger; that was a projected personality from us, the viewer, to him, the entertainer. A relationship based on one-way interactions, with any deviation from that shattering the world around it — often known as a ‘parasocial relationship’.

That projection was not the same being as the actual person named Anthony Bourdain that lived, breathed, slept, ate, blinked, and, unbeknownst to even some of his closest confidants, existed with depression until he was found, hanged in a hotel room, on June 8th 2018.

When lamenting on this on the third anniversary of his death from suicide, a friend reflected to me, “he calmly decided to stop living one day after years of quiet sadness.” It is that quiet sadness that exists in many or indeed all of us, threatening to awaken at any time for any reason, that strangely seems to deviate from my projection of Anthony Bourdain.

He can’t’ve felt the same misery that I do, surely? Did he struggle to get out of bed to complete even the simplest of tasks? Did he anxiously, compulsively replay or anticipate situations in his head until the line blurred between fiction and reality? Did he find that some days, most days, he was filled with a pessimistic outlook on all things?

That doesn’t fit the perfect idealised version of you in my head!

Of course, this is ridiculous. We have long known facts about mental illness and how they affect us, and the societal needle is still grappling with, but very slowly moving past the point of wondering, ‘what do celebrities have to be sad about anyway?’; But it doesn’t stop it from being raw and unfathomable when it happens. Names we know, names me might admire, names that become familiar and part of the fabric of our culture, names like Chris Cornell, Keith Flint, Chester Bennington, Avicii, Caroline Flack, Scott Hutchison, Hana Kimura, Robin Williams, Gary Speed.

These names, and many like them, are regularly used as an example that hey, we need to talk about mental health! It’s okay to talk. Really. Reach out. I’m always here for you. Have you tried talking to someone? You should see a therapist! Everyone should see a therapist! Or at least your doctor. You’ve tried that? It didn’t work? Well how do you know it didn’t work? Have you tried seeing them again? As if anyone of those actions are as fucking easy as the pithy line they’re written on would suggest. What does it say of our healthcare that even those with the resource to access the best help possible still can’t get the help they need?

It’s why campaigns to eliminate the stigma, or raise awareness of ‘mental health’, are infuriating. We are all of us aware of mental health, and many don’t choose to ‘not talk’ because of the stigma — instead, the choice to ‘not talk’ is because talking about it endlessly is exhausting. The invasive, repetitive, and often frustrating ways that mental illnesses are diagnosed and (un)treated is its own self-fulfilling barrier. Don’t tell someone who’s struggling that the burden actually falls on them to talk more about their struggle; write to your lawmakers and representatives demanding better resource in mental and social care, join a union and collectively bargain in your workplace to eliminate practices that impact mental health negatively, petition online in spaces you feel able to. Don’t use someone you don’t know who died from suicide (they did not commit suicide, committing implies culpability) to justify the weak premise of it being ‘time to talk’, especially when the ‘talking’ never amounts to anything of substance.

To know that you don’t really know someone is scary, particularly if you’ve spent years, maybe even decades building up an image of that person in your mind. Eating at a restaurant and wondering what Anthony Bourdain would think of its Bolognese sauce, walking through a bustling market in a foreign country and wondering which traders would he would have stopped to interview, seeing whatever the trending chef of the day is doing and wondering what the inimitable New Yorker would’ve said in response.

Though we don’t, didn’t, and will never know the real person, the portrayal we think we know gives us something in common with many others, that we don’t realise until it’s too late. Thousands, millions of people have also come to know that projection of that person, and they too grieve for some person they did not fundamentally know. Fans, at varying levels of interest or passion, grieving at varying stages and intensities.

The collectivism in shared grief is cathartic and unexpectedly necessary for closure for many. People pour into the streets for state funerals, albums by deceased artists rocket up the charts, and posthumous works of cinema often take on added significance for the actor in question. The chance to say goodbye, not to the person you didn’t even know, but the personality you loved, is a rare and bittersweet thing.

The context of an artist’s work after their death is hard to divorce from the situation surrounding their passing, and exploitation from third parties and estates often means that any retrospectives for the deceased risk being executed in poor taste. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, set for release in July 2021, is a documentary that does not inspire this fear due to the careful nature that it has been developed, the interviews with his film crew that take equal billing alongside various celebrity talking heads and flashback footage, and the recorded narration from the man himself — heart-wrenching closure, if ever it existed.

I know why I find it difficult to articulate why I might grieve for a famous person like Anthony Bourdain. If I put it into words, in some way I have acknowledged that his death happened, and that it hurts. I truly some days forget that he is gone, like an unintentional-but-maybe-intentional denial that insulates me from the more painful reality. More uncomfortably, it requires the acknowledgement that the idealised man I thought I knew was actually just one aspect of a multitudinous man whose life impacted mine in far greater ways than he ever knew, and in far greater ways than could ever be repaid.

Grieving in this way is understanding that that type of grief is still okay. It’s going to the cinema to watch a posthumous release, knowing full well that you’ll bawl your eyes out the whole time. It’s knowing that, like the below trailer says, it doesn’t have a happy ending.

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