Skip to main content


Here in the States, it’s been hard to miss the news about the death of 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger, whose body was discovered in his New York apartment yesterday. As the media frenzy is beginning to settle, it appears more and more that his death was accidental, most likely having something to do with an overdose of one or more of prescription meds he was taking (he was also apparently sick with pneumonia). His death came as a shock to many. Ledger wasn’t a tabloid bad-boy. He wasn’t known for partying or fast living. In fact, he was seldom in the tabloids. He lived far outside of Hollywood and avoided media attention. Yet even though Ledger was a private person, journalists that met and interviewed him say he was friendly and polite.

For some reason, Ledger’s death has left me unusually distracted and even emotional over the last 24 hours. While I’ve really enjoyed some of Ledger’s work, I’m not what you would call a fan. Until yesterday, I didn’t even know he was in Monster’s Ball or I’m Not There. I was vaguely aware that he had a child with actress Michelle Williams, but I didn’t know the two had split last fall. Since his death, I’ve discovered that he was a devoted father and beloved son who also struggled with depression, anxiety and his own talent. As I’ve learned more about Ledger and his life, I can’t help checking the news more often than usual. I teared up when I heard his father talk about him and especially when I saw the pictures of Ledger with his little girl on his shoulders.

As I’ve mulled over why Ledger’s death has moved me, I think some of it has to do with my own vulnerabilities. His death is something that cuts through the barriers of fame and wealth. Thousands die every year from unintentional overdoses or a lethal mix of prescription drugs—it could happen to anyone, including people I know and love. Also, Ledger’s death reminds me that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Fathers shouldn’t have to bury sons. Daughters shouldn’t grow up without fathers. Twenty-eight years old is way too young to die. This is a broken world, shattered shards of its original beauty.

But I think there’s something deeper in all this. I recently heard it said that the death of a person is the loss of a world. When someone dies, all their thoughts, feelings, memories and unique experience of this world is gone. Others will remember them and may even share many of those experiences, but the singular life of the one who died has gone. Indeed, it is as if an entire world has been lost. And that doesn’t even begin to express the world that is lost or broken by those who lose someone they love—fathers and mothers who lose a child, sisters and brothers who lose a sibling, sons and daughters who lose a parent. For them, their world will never be the same. And that makes me consider just how many people that I rub shoulders with each day live a world drastically different than the one they’d hoped for. That gives me pause.

This is probably why I’m getting irritated when I read peices that brush off Ledger’s death, most of the time claiming that there are much larger problems and tragedies in the world than “the death of a movie star.” This kind of logic diminishes one life in favor of another. Not that I don’t get where this perspective is most likely coming from—all too often, we do pay far too much attention to the death of someone famous but give little thought to the heartbreaking and overwhelming number of deaths of children in Uganda or Sudan (two horrible crises that own much of my heart). But I firmly believe that life is precious and invaluable—be it a life of a child in Sudan to a wealthy young actor in a New York loft. The value of life doesn’t change because of how much money one has or where one lives. Learning more about Ledger’s life and death reminds me of that.

The awareness that each life is precious and is a valuable world in and of itself also underscores for me the power of individual stories. Learning about Ledger’s life is a big part of why his death is affecting me. And it was reading the stories about the lives of individual people that drew my compassion and advocacy to the overwhelming suffering in Uganda and Sudan. And meeting and hearing the stories of undocumented immigrants in South Texas is what cemented my compassion for these folks and my advocacy for immigration reform.

But this also plays into our as-we-go lives and those we rub shoulders with each day. Everyone has a story, and often times knowing that story helps us understand and see each other as we are: people who struggle to love and be loved, to deal with our woundedness and brokenness. And that often touches our own woundedness and brokenness, which gives us a context in which to relate to them. We don’t have to agree with them, their choices or opinions. But learning their stories does enable us to love them with the kind of Love we are Loved with—by a God who knows our story and works to invite us into the True Story, a Love Story. For it is as we love others that we invite them into that Story and God’s Love—and that is what our lives are all about.

Ultimately, I suppose all this makes me remember how much God loves each of us. I love how William Young puts this in The Shack. In the novel, God continually tells the main character, “I am especially fond of you.” Affectingly, God uses the phrase every time he references another person as well. This goes a long way in expanding and deepening my understanding of God’s motivations for working to remake and bring life to this broken world, which includes each and every one of us: “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). And that kind of love is too much to keep to ourselves. In fact, if we really get that love, it will spill out on the world around us.

I just read again Paul’s urging to followers of Jesus in Philippi to “not only love much but well” (1:9 Message). He describes love as an active, persistent, focused action that ends up “making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God” (11). That’s the kind of love I eventually get to in all this. Ledger will eventually fade from the news and the thoughts of most of us who did not know him, but for his family, friends and little girl, his life and death will remain a large part of their lives. That is how it is with many of us—and many of those we rub shoulders with every day. Ledger’s death calls me to remember this, to pay attention, listen to their stories, consider the worlds they’ve lost and especially love them. That is the love that I have received. That is the love I want to give.

Update: An abbreviated version of this post appeared on Doable Evangelism Thoughts at Off the Map.

(Image: Heath Ledger as Ennis in Brokeback Mountain via Wikipedia)