October 31, 2023

Grieving someone you've never met

If my math is correct, it's been about 68 hours since I found out that Matthew Perry died. Which means I've spent about 68 hours feeling all sorts of feelings that I didn't know you could feel when someone whom you've never met is no longer of this earth. According to a quick Google search and a top psychology site, this is normal, and one great way to deal with it is to write about it, so here we go.

There have been a few "celebrity deaths" that have affected me deeply. Tom Petty was probably the biggest. When the guy who seemingly writes the soundtrack to your life dies and you realize there will be no more music and no more concerts, it's hard. The deaths of Kobe Bryant and Paul Walker both affected me pretty strongly, mostly for the same reasons — I grew up admiring their work, and they held a big place in the pop culture from my coming of age years. Losing them felt like losing a bit of my youth.

But Matthew Perry hits differently. Way differently. As I wrote in my review of his book last year, I'm not one to obsess over celebrities. I'm not above getting hung up on someone from time to time. Good lord, I spent a large part of my summer watching almost everything Chris Rock has ever done, and you should see my Vivien Leigh memorabilia collection, but otherwise, I just don't care, and I just don't have time for it. Matthew Perry has been the exception for two decades or a little longer.

I've spent the last few days trying to pinpoint exactly why he was the exception. I didn't really watch Friends until its later seasons. I had a massive crush on him for a while (still do, I suppose), and how could you not? He is beautiful. But I've had a thousand crushes on a thousand guys, famous or not, so that's nothing special. Of course, he's also amazingly talented and gifted, though I felt his best work was sometimes overlooked. Don't get me started on Studio 60, and if you didn't like his movies, I'm sure you never saw Birds of America, Numb, or even The Ron Clark Story. I would have loved to see him do more dark and dramatic stuff.

I always wished he would write more. I know he wrote a play, The End of Longing, and I fully intended to go see it, but that was around the time my mom got sick and ended up on dialysis, which took over my life, so that never panned out. I know he wrote some TV shows, but I also know that the process is often muddled with too many people having a hand in it. When I found out he was writing a book last year, I was so freaking excited. I really hoped it would be the first of many. Memoirs. Fiction. Whatever. When it came out, I devoured it.

Actually, I was driving around yesterday, deep in thought, and it occurred to me that 90% of the male characters I've written over the last two decades have largely been inspired by MP. No one else has ever influenced my writing like that. I didn't even realize it until yesterday, but I guess he was my muse in a way. Is my muse. I think that's something that will stick with me forever. I hope it does.

There was just always something intriguing about him. Few people can master that type of humor, and when they do, I'm drawn to it. And I always felt there was a loneliness about him that I found all too relatable. Maybe that was part of the draw — seeing someone seemingly on top of the world experiencing some of the same stuff you often went through in life.

I actually enjoyed seeing him on talk shows and making random appearances that popped up on YouTube as much as I did his acting, which is why years and years and years ago, I even signed up for "Matthew Perry" Google Alerts (way back when that was a thing and he was promoting something or another) to make sure I didn't miss any of those appearances. And for whatever reason, I never stopped them, even as they became fewer and further between for a while. Every day, I'd check my email and see a million notifications from work clients and colleagues and the random junk I get from every store from which I've ever bought something, but those MP Google Alerts were peppered in there for nearly two decades. Admittedly, sometimes I deleted them without even reading them. Sometimes they were about the famous naval officer of the same name. (I'm not a big history person, but I know a lot about that dude now.) It was like my own little private thing, I guess, and it brought me a little moment of comfort every day.

Until it didn't.

68 hours ago, I sat down in my living room to finish an article. I'm going back to Costa Rica next week, so I wanted to get as caught up on work as possible before I left. I'd spent the first part of the day cleaning out some of my mom's stuff—mostly because my body needed a physical break from my laptop—and had just watched Georgia beat Florida, so I was in a good mood. Before I got started on work, I checked my email. There wasn't much. It was Saturday evening after all. A few ads from stores. A couple of those MP alerts. I almost just deleted them, but I didn't.

I opened one and mindlessly glanced at it. Then I deleted it and moved on to the Google Doc where my half-written article sat waiting for me. But then I got goosebumps, my body reacting before my mind made sense of it. Did that say "dead?" I went back to my email and clicked on my trash so I could read it again.

Sure enough, the alert was from a TMZ article. "Dead at 54." This was obviously a mistake. Some weird glitch in the Google Alert system that mixed up some headlines. Some other actor must have died. Rather than click on the link, I went to TMZ.com and saw the same headline there at the top of the page. And then I went to Twitter. If you ever want breaking news on any topic ever, go to Twitter. I saw his name listed in the trending topics, and my heart sank.

I just sat there numbly for a while, unable to comprehend this. There are maybe 2-3 people in my life who know about my little fascination with him. I texted them. They didn't respond. My dad was in the kitchen fixing himself something to eat. "Matthew Perry died," I yelled into the next room. The words didn't feel right coming out of my mouth.

"Who?" My dad asked. I repeated it. "He seemed to have a lot of problems," he said. I didn't like that response. Eventually my friends responded. I didn't like their responses. The whole word responded. None of it made any sense. Why didn't anyone understand that this didn't make sense? I didn't get that article finished that night. I couldn't even sleep. I cried the next day. I made dark jokes about it because that's what I do. I prayed. I told God that if this was his doing, I did not think it was his best decision. Pretty ballsy move on my part, I guess. And an awful lot of grieving for someone whom I've never even met…

Over the last 68 hours, I've gotten dozens of those Google Alerts. At first, I clicked on them, forgetting what kind of morbid little reminders they'd have inside, and I'd go into shock all over again. I eventually started deleting them again because it went from announcing that a beloved actor had died to horrible invasions of privacy and stories about him that are obviously not true.

Yesterday, I even debated stopping the Google Alerts completely, but I just can't bring myself to do that. One day maybe. There may even come a time when they just stop showing up daily, when the world moves on. But I'm not ready to move on yet. As I said, they became a little source of comfort for me. My security blanket. All of it was. The TV shows, the movies, the interviews, the appearances, the YouTube videos, the book — that's where I often turned when I was riddled with anxiety. When my mom was dying and I didn't think I could face another day. When a pandemic ruined some major life plans. When my dad was very sick in the hospital. When a boy I liked very much didn't like me back. When I lost a job. When I felt alone in the world. When my dog died. When my grandfather died. When my mind wouldn't settle at night and I couldn't sleep. 90% of the time, this guy who I never met got me through it.

There's a quote going around from an interview he did last year. "The best thing about me, bar none, is that if somebody comes to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say ‘yes’ and follow up and do it. When I die, I don’t want Friends to be the first thing that’s mentioned. I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned. And I’m gonna live the rest of my life proving that."

Obviously, for many people, Friends is what first comes to mind when they hear the name Matthew perry. That's where they know him from. That's how they'll remember him. That's how they'll mourn. That annoyed me a little bit initially, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it was a show that was more than just entertainment. I know for many of my friends and people of my generation, it was a source of comfort as we grew up and learned how to be adults. I know for many people it's a go-to when they're anxious or depressed, an escape. And I don't think it would be that without him.

But if you dig a little deeper, you'll see that he did have a much bigger impact on many people's lives beyond just starring on their favorite TV show. Google drug courts or the Lili Claire Foundation. Dig around on a site like Reddit for a minute, and you'll see people talk about how he inspired them to get sober and face their addictions. Look at some of the social media pages of the people who did know him well, like actors Hank Azaria and David Pressman, and you'll see lovely words for a guy who seemingly treated those around him with lots of love and respect.

It may not be exactly the legacy he wanted, but it seems that Matthew Perry left a huge impression on thousands, if not millions, of people in various ways. And there will forever be an MP-shaped hole in this world that no one else can fill.

As for me, well, I think I'll be sad about this for a long time. I felt like he had so much more to give the world, but in a way, I guess that's selfish because he already gave us so much. And I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm so, so grateful for that. From the years of entertainment to the writing inspiration, my life isn't the same because he was in this world. And if I'm feeling that way, I can only imagine how so many others do. With any luck, wherever he is now, Matthew Perry can see what he gave every single one of us and be proud that despite any battles he faced, his life was so important and the positive outweighs the negative a million times over.

And that's why I find myself sitting here grieving a guy I've never even met.