Not playing by the rules

Although it happens enough not to be completely out of the ordinary, you don’t really expect to hear of someone young dying. This, for me, was the most shocking thing in hearing about actor Heath Ledger‘s death. Scanning the front page of The Guardian, I read down the story and stopped dead on the words “He was 28.” It was a stark, shocking sentence, and I’m sure their are people who aren’t in their early twenties who would feel the same way.

However, the death of someone in my age group is especially sobering, mostly because of the perspective young people have on life and death. The former is something that happens to them, the latter isn’t. Part of being young is knowing that, no matter what you do, you are bulletproof. You take risks, do stupid things, because the thought of dying enters your head rarely, if at all.

That’s why something like this brings me up short. Although there are events more deserving of coverage, such as the blockade of Gaza, Ledger’s death has a certain resonance, simply because we’re about seven years apart in age.

In media coverage of the responses to his death, a similar attitude emerges:

A lot of people are reacting to the man, rather than the actor, especially those in their twenties who are shocked at “one of their own” dying. According to the New York Times, Nicole Vaughan, a 24-year-old law student at New York University, walked to Ledger’s apartment after she heard the news “because of the way our generation is, we sort of feel we’re a part of each other’s lives”.

At the moment, a student from Leeds Met named Gavin Terry is missing. There’s a concerted effort by fellow students to raise awareness to try and find him, with the Facebook group reaching almost 24,000 members. The same kind of connection is felt here: a young person is not meant to vanish, to go before their time. When someone our age dies, it’s often by accident or suicide, reminding the rest of us of the possibility of tragedy, that the ice we skate on is sometime very thin. As Joe Queenan says in his otherwise overly-sentimental tribute to Ledger:

There is no greater tragedy than for a parent to outlive its children, because the old are supposed to exit the stage before the young. This is why Ledger’s death seems not only tragic but morally incorrect. Once again, the universe is not playing by the rules.

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