Death Of A Celebrity
Put your hand up if the recent death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna hit you hard? I was having dinner with a friend when he checked his phone, gasped, looked up at me from his phone and broke the news. Admittedly, I have only watched few NBA games in my life, but if you ask me in, say, ten years from now where I was when I learned about that helicopter crash, I will remember. Even if Kobe Bryant’s death hasn’t impacted you, how about Caroline Flack taking her own life? Another friend also broke this news to me and a lengthy debate ensured about the culpability of the media vs. what I can only assume were long standing mental health issues. This is not the topic that I want to debate in this post but I will cover it once the dust has settled a little more. Back to the topic in hand, I also remember exactly where my teenage self was when Kurt Cobain took his own life. Simply devastating. Chances are high that even if none of the above resonates with you, you can think of a celebrity death that hit you harder than you could ever have imagined. Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, and Amy Winehouse…..the list goes on.
Do you feel a little weirded out and self-conscious if you’ve found yourself grieving the death of a celebrity? Maybe you are asking yourself why you are upset when you didn’t even know the person?!? The sadness doesn’t just feel abstract, it can feel personal. And that feels, well, more than a little weird. On the surface of it, it might seem strange to hold the death of a celebrity in the same mental space as the death of someone that you have actually known. However, if you have ever been rocked by the loss of someone famous, you’ll know that it doesn’t feel that far removed at all. Fandom can actually convince our brains into thinking that we know and trust celebrities in the way that we trust friends or family. This is made even easier in the digital age as the Internet and social media offer us intimate access to celebrities’ daily lives. Therefore, the connections that are forged with them via social media platforms can feel completely real. We have Twitter to give us access to famous people’s thoughts in real time, Instagram to see what they had for lunch, and online communities to bond with other fans. When death severs this one sided connection, it can feel as though we have lost a loved one. And in a way, we have.
So just what is celebrity grief all about and why does it happen to us? Like so many aspects of the grieving process, there are lots of reasons and no clear rules. Some people feel intense emotions around a celebrity death, whilst others feel nothing. The reasons for those emotions may vary dramatically, here are a few thought for you that may provide some context:
Celebrities are a vital part of our own life stories:
When a celebrity dies, the narratives and the memories within us that they touched become tinged with grief. We might have seen them grow and change and might have connected to those changes. How many adult basketball fans out there were once 11-year-olds shouting “Kobe!” whilst watching him play? I can’t watch Mrs Doubtfire or even Jumanji without feeling a tinge of sadness for Robin Williams. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but it still creeps up and surprises us when it seeps into those happy experiences that we took for granted that nothing could touch.
We feel a connection to our favourite celebrities:
These connections are not just about how much we love, appreciate and respect these people, but sometimes because they remind us of aspects of us. This can be as specific as their connection to a moment in our past, or as general as the fact that they are around our age or have something else in common with us. When a celebrity dies, it seems we go through the cycle of public mourning. As a collective, we may find their most profound quotes; post their photos to social media; consume their art in high volumes; hypothesize about who they were and what they meant. We may create narratives around their lives. Sometimes they mean something to us, other times we try to make them mean something to us. Most times, celebrity deaths signify something greater for our society and us.
It can feel like an unfinished story:
Human beings are narrative creatures because we are storytellers at heart. What I mean by this is that we like a narrative to link things together and make meaning of the world around us. We are raised knowing that every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Life stories shouldn’t end in in the middle, in a helicopter crash at the age of 41 or by suicide at the age of 40 or even an overdose at the age of 27. An abrupt ending that doesn’t connect with the rest of the story is deeply unsettling. Celebrity deaths remind us of our humanity because behind the societal narrative of success, they are human beings, just like us. We can choose to be embarrassed by our heartache for a stranger or we can choose to use the feelings of grief as a chance to reflect on what really matters.
We may connect with the way in which the celebrity died:
Whether the cause of death is cancer, suicide, overdose or an accident, it can hit a nerve if it draws parallels with aspects of our own life story. It may be because we have struggled with the same thing, or it may be because we lost someone in the same way. Celebrity deaths, especially sudden ones, can awaken our own anxieties. Most of us don’t go throughout the day meditating on our own mortality because if we did, that wouldn’t be very productive. However, the death of a celebrity can be a stark reminder that in this life, no one gets out alive.
So what can I do if I am feeling the loss?
The first step to mourning the death of a celebrity is to acknowledge that it’s not weird or silly to be sad about it, even if you didn’t personally know them. It’s valid to be upset. Acknowledge that this is real, because you felt a connection to them.
Beyond this, it may also helpful to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, even if you just share a moment of shock with a colleague or a friend. If, however, you can’t seem to work through these emotions on your own, it’s always helpful to talk to a mental health professional. You don’t have to wait until you are experiencing something in your direct life or from a direct tragedy to get some support.
To wrap, whilst you may not have known Kobe Bryant or Caroline Flack personally, they created work that spoke directly to a lot of people’s experiences. There is no shame in being upset that the world has lost them or in feeling that loss personally.