A text from a friend, and there it is. The sudden shock, the celebrity’s face next to the breaking news headlines “found dead.” In the days to follow, a whole person’s life will be re-analysed through a lens of how it ended. Interviews will be pored over, in a frantic search for clues about what led to their untimely demise. There will be intense speculation about what led to their sudden end, with constant updates about their final moments; who found them, how they did it.
Collectively, we will grieve. Facebook feeds across the world will be swarmed with family’s and friends’ lamentations, and Twitter will explode as people all across the world share their sadness. Office workers will gather by the cooler to discuss the news, old friends will share their memories of their idol over drinks, and websites everywhere will scramble to collect anecdotes about the celebrity’s life.
A common protest in the face of all this public grieving is that as we do not know the celebrity who has died, the grief we experience is therefore not real. And there is some truth in that. The “relationship” we have with celebrities is one-sided: We know all about their relationship make-ups and break-ups, their children, their fitness routines, their struggles. We have seen them grow and change under the glare of the media, seen their relationships bloom and wilt. We know what’s in their makeup bags, how they make time for exercise, and the tabloids splash their dark side for all to see. But if the celebrity that we have followed for years saw us on the street, they would have no idea who we are.
But that is not to say that our grief is therefore unwarranted. We are all wired to be moved when we recognise that someone else is in pain. It is a natural reaction to experience sadness at the news that someone has died suddenly. And not having personally met someone does not mean that they did not impact our lives in a meaningful way. Movies that a star appeared in, songs they sung—these have been all been the backdrop to our own lives. One of my favourite memories is sitting in a movie theatre, cuddled up to my dad, both laughing at full volume at the Genie in “Aladdin.” Robin Williams’ tragic death shocked the world in part because he was the comedic wit who leaped mischievously in and out of our childhood. He was our nanny in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” our eccentric teacher in “Dead Poets Society,” our therapist in “Good Will Hunting.” We remember the ways celebrities’ work touched our lives, and we also remember the childhoods that we have left behind.
When researchers have studied fans’ responses to celebrities deaths, they don’t find that their grief is inauthentic or self indulgent. Clinically, it looks no different to the grief that someone experiences after the loss of a family friend or loved one. People tend to grieve for celebrities they identify with—a young woman is more likely to grieve for Amy Winehouse than for Phillip Hoffman. When someone dies who is similar to us, it makes us face our own mortality. If someone like us could die of something like addiction or depression, that makes us vulnerable too. Peaches Geldof’s sudden death by heroin overdose was shocking because she had pulled back the curtain on her domestic life. Her articles on new motherhood and her Instagram were a window into her world. She was just like us; figuring out things as she went along, doting on her two young children, poring over old family photos at night.
People tend to be more distressed when loved ones die suddenly—and it is no different for celebrities. Princess Diana’s death was on the front page of newspapers everywhere and updates about the case were updated on TV screens nightly, but Mother Teresa’s death after a long illness a few weeks later barely rated a mention—other than to note that she was a dear friend of Diana’s.
In western society, death is not something that comes up in casual conversation. We see grief as something that happens at a funeral. We don’t have the rituals in place to support a grieving person in the months and years ahead that they face without their loved one. We don’t know how to talk to acquaintances or colleagues who have lost someone—it makes us awkward, uncomfortable. We steer away from talking about the departed person lest we make the griever more unhappy. Celebrity deaths are a notable exception to this culture—they break down this great taboo. Research conducted after Michael Jackson’s sudden death found that people’s interactions on Twitter created a shared space for people to work through their loss.
Celebrity deaths help us to see that mental illness and addictions can hit anyone. It doesn’t matter how beloved you are by the masses, how many millions are in your bank account, how many Oscars line your dresser. The trace of silver lining in these tragedies is that our eyes are opened to the tragic consequences of untreated mental illness and addictions. We can share our own experiences of inner demons, and learn about the treatments and support that brought others back from the precipice.
So next time you see a status update about the death of a celebrity, don’t just dismiss your friend’s reaction. Something about that celebrity resonated with them—their work, their struggles, or just the universal tragedy of someone dying before their time. By grieving for celebrities, your friend is doing something natural—expressing their grief at the loss to the world of someone they admired.
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