The world has experienced its fair share of loss over the last few years with the deaths of so many celebrities.

The stars of stage and screen, who made us laugh and cry in equal measure. Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Roger Moore, Martin Landau and Mary Tyler Moore.

The superstar musicians, who each brought their own special magic to the world. Prince, George Michael, David Bowie, Glen Campbell, Fats Domino, Tom Petty, David Cassidy and Malcolm Young.

The authors and poets, who transported us to other times and places with the power of their words. Harper Lee, Umberto Eco and Maya Angelou.

Then there are the artists, athletes, activists and public figures.

The list goes on and on.

The death of a beloved celebrity can be a shock that many don’t expect. While some people lean into their grief, others are surprised to experience such a strong personal reaction. I didn’t know them, some may think, so why am I so upset?

 

It’s OK to grieve

There’s nothing wrong with grieving the death of a celebrity.

We grow up with them. We see their movies. We hear their music. We read their books. We applaud their achievements. We feel we know them. And we remember where we were when we heard of their death.

Fifty years ago, people learned of JFK’s death when Walter Cronkite delivered the devastating news on TV. Decades later, many of us were scrolling through Facebook when we discovered the deaths of David Bowie and George Michael. Minutes after the news broke, our social media feeds were filled with videos, and heartfelt posts and tweets.

But most of us have never met these celebrities. We know little more about them than what we see on screen, hear at concerts or read in the news. So why are we so saddened? And is this sadness normal? Yes, it’s normal. Completely normal. In fact, in this age of digital and social media, our feelings of loss can be intensified by the outpouring of news articles and social media updates appearing at lightening-fast speed. The deluge can serve to deepen the loss – but it can also provide support. With the ability to share in the death and support others in their grief, there’s a sense of community.

 

Why we grieve

The truth is, there’s no rulebook when it comes to grief. The emotion may be so swallowing and vast that it’s hard to pinpoint why it manifests in the ways that it does. But just because we can’t explain grief doesn’t mean it’s invalidated – and that includes when it comes to grieving a celebrity.

There are lots of reasons why we may grieve a celebrity death.

  • We don’t know them, but we know them. They’ve been a regular part of our lives – in the TV shows and movies we laugh and cry along with, through the music that defines special moments, writing the books we return to time after time, or creating the art that touches our heart each time we see it. We’ve seen them grow and change, and we often feel connected to those changes.
  • We feel connected to them. These connections aren’t just about how much we love, appreciate and respect the celebrity. Sometimes they’re because the celebrity, in some ways, reminds us of ourselves. This may be as specific as their connection to a particular moment in our past or as general as the fact that they are about our age.
  • We connect with the way they died. Whether it’s an accident, disease, suicide or any other type of death, it can hit a nerve. We may have struggled with the same thing or have lost someone in the same way.
  • We see it everywhere. Seriously, everywhere! Each time we turn on the TV, listen to the radio, login to social media – we just can’t avoid it. This constant exposure can be overwhelming and can make it harder to deal with tough emotions.
  • We know they’ll never create anything new again. People might say “at least we still have their work”. True. But their existing work doesn’t mean there isn’t a deep sense of loss that they’ll never create anything new. We’ll never hear a new song, see a new movie, read a new poem or see a new painting. We can simultaneously feel grateful for the work that exists, while still grieving for lost potential.

 

Grieving can be a good thing

It’s not surprising that many people feel a spell of sadness or grief when a favourite celebrity dies, and these feelings can actually be good for us. Here’s why.

  • It heightens our sense of empathy and understanding for those who are suffering. Some celebrities die peacefully after long and happy lives. Others die after hard-fought battles with disease. And then there are those who die prematurely after fighting addiction. Celebrities aren’t alone in their struggles with disease and illnesses like depression, drug abuse and alcoholism, and their deaths can help us better understand addictions and heighten our empathy for those suffering from them.
  • Our feelings can provide clues about what’s missing from our life. When celebrities with decades-long careers die, they take a little piece of our past with them. News of their death can transport us back to a time where their work was a source of joy, affirmation or comfort. Hearing a song may take us back to a teenage party. Watching a movie might remind us of a first date. And reading a book might bring back high school memories. Times and places before the pressures of work, marriage, kids and bills dampened our youthful enthusiasm! These moments of nostalgia can be opportunities to assess our lives. A brief journey back to our adolescent or young-adult years can help us identify what’s important and figure out ways to reintroduce some long-lost passions, goals and dreams into our lives.
  • Collective mourning connects us to a larger community. Whether it’s attending a candlelight vigil or reading social media posts, collective mourning helps to connect us in meaningful ways. Discovering a shared fondness for a particular film or song brings us closer to others, because our cultural tastes often reflect our values and world views. Collective mourning reminds us that we’re part of a particular generation – whether Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y or Millenials – and helps us to celebrate the cultural touchstones that define us.

 

It brings up the big questions

Most of us of don’t take the time to ponder some of life’s most important questions. What is a life well-lived? What imprint do we want to leave on the world? What do we fear most about our own death?

Our busy lives leave us with precious little time for personal connection and conversations about meaningful issues. That’s why the exchanges triggered by celebrity deaths can help us realise that we’re part of something bigger and more profound than ourselves.

Importantly, celebrity deaths remind us that we’ll all die someday – and neither fame nor wealth nor talent shields us from that inevitability. And this recognition of life’s finiteness can help us to appreciate what we have before it’s gone.

 

Want to know more?

For more information about how you can support family and friends through the grieving process, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing community@waltercarter.com.au.