This week, the world got the news about the sudden death of Lisa Marie Presley; the only child of the legendary Elvis Presley. So now her mom Priscilla is living on earth without her only child, just as Lisa Marie was living here on earth without her son Ben, who died by suicide in 2020. In addition to Ben, /Lisa Marie has three daughters; Riley, Harper, and Finley. She also leaves behind a lot of friends, family, and her enormous talent and singing voice; which was some percent good genes and I’m sure a lot of hard work and discipline with voice lessons, band gigs, and everything that comes with that lifestyle.
For me, the death of Lisa Marie hit me in several different ways. It felt like there were a lot of layers and are a lot of layers to how I feel. All I know is that my initial reaction, just seconds after hearing about it on social media, was a feeling of deep sadness. That was followed up by some good old-fashioned “widow of sudden death trauma” emotions and panic, which then led to a lot of reflection and silent thinking about all the many things we sometimes think about when someone dies so suddenly and so young (she was 54 years old.)
First, let me talk about the sadness I am feeling. I’m sad for Lisa, because she won’t be able to live life anymore, love her family that is here on earth, or sing and play her beautiful music again. I’m sad for her family – her mother Priscilla, and her three daughters. I’m sad that the world or the industry or whoever never really gave Lisa a full-on shot at being herself, instead of Elvis’ daughter. (Her debut album, “To Whom It May Concern”, did reach number 5 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and was certified gold that summer.) Her voice was hauntingly beautiful, and she could rock with the best of them.
I have always been a fan, not only of her music, but of HER as a human being. She seemed to have that sarcastic humor that I have and that I love and that I so relate to, and she seemed to always walk around with a bit of sadness about her, even before her son Ben died. She always told it like it was in interviews, and she always spoke the truth. It always struck me that Lisa was only 4 years old when her dad died, yet being the daughter of Elvis Presley was something that would affect her in a billion different ways throughout her short life. I’m sad that Lisa never really got to know her own dad, and that she had to lose him at such a young age. I’m sad that being the daughter of rock and roll royalty and being born into that life brought with it such stress and hardships for her. I’m sad that I’m not sure if I believe the narrative that “she is now reunited with her dad and her son”. In my opinion, this is just something people tell themselves in an effort to make death less terrifying, awful, and final. For me, I’m just really sad.
Next up is the trauma piece of this loss. Grief brings up grief, and it always will. So when it was revealed that it appears Lisa Marie died from cardiac arrest, it brought me right back to that life-altering Wednesday when I was jarred awake by the phone and into my new widowed reality. Learning that my 46-year old, seemingly healthy husband, Don Shepherd, had been found collapsed on the floor an hour after arriving at his volunteer job taking care of animals on his day off, rushed to the hospital, worked on but never resucitated, and now was dead forever. Because of this trauma, I reacted instantly to a post I read on Facebook where someone was making ridiculous statements about what “really” caused Lisa Marie’s death, with zero facts or even an educated guess to back up her brainwashed theories, and she was basically saying that “people don’t just suddenly die like that at 54 years old.” Well, let me just say, as someone who became a widow at age 39 because her husband was here one second and then dead the next – THE HELL THEY DON’T!!! Death happens. And lots of times, it happens very suddenly, very young, and very traumatically. Humans have been having heart-attacks since the beginning of time. It’s not anything new. And sadly, heart disease is the leading cause of death not only for humans, but for women specifically. So, yes, people die all the time, and neither death nor grief come with much logic.
My trauma about sudden death came out in a nightmare after learning of Lisa Marie’s death. My dad, who is now 78 and retired and generally doing pretty well, is a huge Elvis fan, and has been his whole life. He is also a singer, and his voice sounds a lot like Elvis. It really does. At one point, a couple of decades back, he was part of a band called “The Memphis Project”, and they did mostly country songs, ending their performance with my dad coming out as Elvis, in an elaborate Vegas-style costume that he made, and singing lots of Elvis hits to bring the house down in an epic finale. Anyway, my trauma brain associates Lisa Marie to Elvis, and then Elvis to my dad, so I had a nightmare that I was at my dad’s birthday party, and in a huge crowd of people at the party, he collapsed from heart failure or heart attack. The dream ended in chaos, with me and others running to him, crying, the sound of ambulances coming in the background, and me screaming: “Nooooo!!!!” This was not a fun way to wake up, and I had to go sit in the living room for an hour afterwards, and calm myself back into breathing normally.
A lot of people have said that perhaps Lisa Marie died of a broken heart. She always walked around with a sadness to her, and then when her son Ben died at age 27 in 2020, that inner-sadness morphed into living with the impossible. People have speculated that maybe she simply couldn’t live in that reality, and her heart couldn’t take it. Maybe so. However, since the death of her son, she was finding purpose in her pain through helping others. She was doing grief work with David Kessler, running grief groups for other parents who had lost a child (check out his FB post about her and their friendship -it’s quote beautiful and poignant.) They were planning on a grief podcast together. She wrote an essay last September for National Grief Awareness Day, where she opened up about her son’s death. “You do not get over it. You do not move on. Period.” She also said that she found comfort in the company of people who have faced similar tragedies, and she told Kessler that there was much more work to be done in the grief world, and that she wanted to be around to do it.
It makes me really sad that she won’t be around to do that work. It takes courage, strength, and so much determination to keep going after the loss of someone you love. To take your pain and turn it into something that will help others, is something that is not only admirable but also something that is always so needed in this world. Her voice was needed. Her experience and her honesty and her bravery are needed. And it makes me sad that her life has ended, just as she might have been finding her way into seeing some light.
Thank you Lisa Marie Presley. I really wish I could have known you, and talked with you about death and grief and music and sarcasm ruling the world. And even though it was really just a one-way conversation, in some ways, I feel like I’ve been talking to you about those things, and learning from you and commiserating with you. I will keep doing my part to help change the conversations we have surrounding grief and loss. What else can we do, but that, really? Well, that, and just love each other. We can love each other hard.