This week we lost an icon of Hip-Hop music and culture: Earl Simmons, better known as DMX or Dark Man X. Millions upon millions showed their love and admiration for the rapper/actor via social media, with tributes from athletes, celebrities, friends and family. I spent hours retweeting and sharing on my own IG Stories endless dedications.

There were videos of DMX laughing, dancing, crying, performing. I sat and re-watched Backstage on Saturday night. I watched his Drink Champs episode before falling to sleep. I went so far as to splice a video of his historic performance at Woodstock 99’ (there’s a great article about it in The Guardian by Thomas Hobbs) and placed it directly alongside Freddie Mercury and Queen’s epic Live Aid Performance in 1985, as both commanded a crowds large enough to fill three baseball stadiums. In this, I can see myself and others not only celebrating DMX— his life, his music, his art, his pain— I can also see how we were all collectively grieving for him, processing what it means to see someone you love and perhaps someone you don’t know personally, transition.

My friend Scottie Beam said something on Twitter that I think really hits home how a lot of us feel about grief, especially when it comes to the death of celebrities:

“DMX has been on my mind all day. I feel so silly for feeling the way I do about a person I do not know personally. I am reminded... DMX exposed a lot of his wounds through music so I can heal mine. That’s personal enough.”

Grief is hard for a lot of us. Death, the idea of leaving the earthly plane and heading off to an unknown, whether that be heaven, reincarnation, or dust, is a conversation society has been having since the beginning of time. We struggle with making sense of what happens on the other side. We fear losing people we love. We fear the letting go and not being recognized. Giving people “their flowers while they can still smell them” is the phrase used to describe what it means to let the people you love see how much they mean to you before they are ill or transition. We seek comfort, we seek solace, we seek peace and also, we seek answers. We want to make sense of loss, and the feelings that surround it.

My mother has told me for as long as I can remember where her life insurance paperwork is. She’s also told me the songs she wants played at her funeral. My mother talks about death in the same manner one would talk about the weather. At one point, I viewed it as morose. But now, I fully understand what my mother has always understood: that death is a part of the life cycle. Just Blaze’s “Interlude” on Jay Z’s The Black Album brings it home: “...I learned that all things must come to an end. It is an inevitable part of the cycle of existence, all things must conclude”.

It’s with this understanding that we get to see how death shows up in our lives. I use the word transition as a more peaceful and honest way to describe death. For me, it allows room for the many interpretations of what leaving this earth means. Death is finite, transitioning is not. But the idea of dying, and the idea that we can even feel the pain of death and grief for those we don’t know, can sometimes feel like phenomena. But in reality, if we can understand that we are all connected, that grief is also somatic and it shows up in our feelings and bodies; that the experience of death, especially an untimely one can rock us no matter who it is, we then get to feel the fullness of loss without being ashamed over who and what we are grieving.

When Nipsey Hussle died I cried on and off for days. I wrote an essay about it. It helped me process the loss and understand why I felt so heartbroken over it. He was a father, a pillar of his community; and while I may not have agreed with everything Nipsey stood for, I understood the value of his work and his spirit and the imprint he left on the world. That is no different than the value we see in our own loved ones. It also helps us to recognize the stages of grief and how they show up in our own lives:

  • Denial
  • Pain
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • The Upward Turn
  • Reconstruction
  • Acceptance

Healthline has a great explanation of these seven stages and what they mean to us. The most important thing to know about this process is that it’s not linear. These stages are also applicable to divorce, to the ending of friendships, to the loss of a job. This idea is brought home even more when looked at through the lens of COVID—the pandemic has forced many of us to deal with transitioning and loss in multitudes, in unexpected, deeply saddening ways. Feeling the pain of loss is imperative in order for us to heal from said loss. DMX’s passing is a reminder to us all that grieving, no matter who we’re grieving for, is a natural part of the process of living; a process we all must go through at some stage in our lives. The more we create room to have open and frank conversations about death, loss, and the pain behind it, the healthier our communities are allowed to be.

Joel Leon is a father, dreamer and storyteller.
 Follow him @joelleon.