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Why do we grieve when celebrities die?


Grieving Celebrities

We’ve lost some huge celebrity names in the last few weeks. It all started when Motorhead singer Lemmy Kilmister died of cancer at 70 on 28th December. And then it seemed we couldn’t switch on the news or check social media without hearing that another well-known person had died; Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Dan Haggerty and Glen Frey, all gone suddenly and all too young. Each one led to a flurry of coverage and an outpouring of accolades and love from other celebrities and ‘ordinary Joes’ alike.

I found myself feeling really sad, particularly about Alan Rickman – an actor I have loved from first seeing him in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, where his portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham stole the show from headliner, Kevin Costner – and this got me thinking about why we grieve when someone famous dies.

Why does it affect us?

So, why are we affected so much by the death of someone we don’t really know and never met?

"They've been a part of our lives. We see them on TV, they're in our living rooms, we feel we know them, and we incorporate them almost as though they're part of our families, though most of us recognize that they're not,” says Alan Hilfer, chief of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, noting that it is perfectly normal to be saddened by the passing of a celeb we love and admire.

A celebrity death can also remind us of family or friends we have lost, replaying all the feelings of grief and loss that we felt at the time – I’ve found that I’m more effected by the deaths of those lost to cancer, which is of course because I lost my mum to cancer. But I’m fully aware that although I’m sad, I’m certainly not grieving. Perhaps because I’ve lost someone so close and know how deeply you feel that kind of loss.

Social media makes it easy

Social media allows us to share in the grief and we feel we need to be a part of it – see our blog ‘Has Social Media made Grieving Easier?’ The sense of community with those who are also grieving is something I recognise from my mum’s death – I needed to speak to and be with other people who had lost a parent, particularly their mum, because only they could understand what I was going through.

In a study of Facebook memorial pages (Degroot 2012) it was determined that most of the people wrote messages directly to the deceased, as though that person were reading it from the after-life. The study found that the people would even reach out to the deceased through the page and ask them for guidance or protection. In a study completed by (Kern, Forman & Gil-Egui, 2013), it was discovered the "majority of pages returned showed that people posting to the RIP pages are writing in the second person (e.g., 'watch over us from heaven'). Pages written in the second person outnumber first and third person pages by a margin of nearly 2:1".

Of course, there are always people who have the polar opposite view to the majority. I noticed a couple of journalists on social media who weren’t happy with what they deemed ‘insincere’ grief, and were saying that “grief should be private.” There was even a session on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show with one of the journalists concerned asking whether fans have a right to grieve as though Bowie was a member of our own family. But who are we to question someone else’s grief or feelings of loss?

A part of us is lost too

If a singer, such as David Bowie, saw you through your troubled teenage years you can feel like they helped to form you into the person you are now so that loss feels greater. We look up to celebrities who we feel we’re similar to, who we aspire to be like, or who we see as role models, and this impacts on us at particular times in our lives. Their loss can make us feel like a part of us has been lost too, it reminds us that we’re all mortal.

When researchers have studied fans responses to celebrities’ deaths, they don’t find that their grief is self-indulgent or not authentic. Clinically, it looks no different to the grief that someone experiences after the loss of a family friend or loved one. A celebrity death reminds us that even the great and good die, so we all have to live in the moment and be grateful for everything we have.

Well being


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