Why do we grieve the deaths of celebrities?
It has been a year in which several prominent and well-known figures have died. Deaths of celebrities usually result in a massive outpouring of grief on social media, and the news is filled with stories of their lives. Timelines and news feeds are flooded with their quotes, and their pictures are often made into inspirational posters. This expression of intense grief and mourning often feels as if it were for a member of our own family.
While there is no doubt that these losses are incredibly sad, and the world has been bereft of great talent or ability, there is a sense also that this grief may be social media conformity, or that it is misplaced or unreal.
For whom or what are we grieving?
‘But, you didn’t even know them!’
The idea that grieving for celebrities may be disingenuous is a contentious point, but is worth exploring further. The reality, although somewhat obvious, is that we did not know the celebrity on a personal level, did not share intimate moments or spend time connecting as two individuals. We may well have loved their music or art for years, and may have spent numerous evenings in the front row of their gigs. Without diminishing these connections or memories their music or art gave us over the years, the fact remains that our relationship to them was one sided. Our perception of them was not based on interpersonal interactions, sensed personal feelings or meaningful and powerful human bonds which are associated with those closest to us in our lives.
So how then, if we never met them have they so impacted our lives? Is our grief real? If we feel these things, then surely that makes them valid? This leads me to wonder, for whom or what are we grieving? Are we grieving the person who has gone, for the hole they have left in the lives of their family? Or are we grieving the loss of what they provided us with? Are we saddened on a selfish level, that they will never again make the music we so loved? Are we grieving because they will never again produce art or music which will get us through a hard time?
Is our grief associated with the universal sense that the world has been robbed of true talent? Are we in fact grieving not for a person, but for an image or idealised interpretation of another person who in reality, probably wasn’t as we perceived them on television or in magazines. Maybe we are grieving the loss of our own interpretation of their words or art, which over time provided us with something meaningful.
Social media and grief
There can be a sense of expectation on social media that when someone famous dies, you post something in their memory, almost as if it were a requirement, regardless of whether you felt significantly moved by their death. Timelines become filled; adding to the sense there is a collective or unified sense of mourning. This is further compounded by other celebrities doing the same, making the experience feel meaningful, real or validated. Almost instantaneously or virally, news feeds are swamped by the letters ‘RIP’, or ‘Taken too soon’. This blanketed approach to online grief, seems to fit the mentality of following rather than having an individual sense of an experience, and a unique set of feelings regarding grief.
While social media has made it easier for fans to interact with celebrities, and to exchange stories with other fans, it seems that the hashtags, posted links or stories and personal photos related to the death of a celebrity, may be less about remembering the individual and more about who can post about it first or an eagerness to ‘share’ the news. There will no doubt be a rush by media outlets to get the news out there first before their competition, and break the story. It is this aspect of celebrity online grieving, which feels overwhelming, non-empathic and more in line with sensationalism, accruing views and popularity than it is about grief.
Using social media to inform others of a tragedy and loss can be a good way to inform a community, but the retweet, share and one click condolence culture we live in, doesn’t help facilitate the process of loss and grief, If anything it accelerates this as a social norm, when in reality the process of grieving is one that can take months or years. Simply putting up a post and saying RIP somehow doesn’t feel real or meaningful enough.
There is a reality involved in the complexity of grief. This is the enmeshment and entanglement of two individuals. The bonds formed over time and the development of closeness to one another is what makes loss so hard. Whether your attachment or relationship to the other person was fractured and painful, or whether it was stable and loving, losing someone is painful. No one can tell another human being how to feel about their relationships, how to grieve, who to grieve for or how they should experience loss. Loss is individual and meaningful for each individual differently.
The mass mourning on social media and in newspapers we experience for celebrities may be in part to do with breaking the news first, voicing your opinions, being part of what others are doing or because you are genuinely grieving.
Regardless of the reasons for our grief, it is certainly true that these people had an impact upon us. Their words or music spoke to us personally on profound levels and helped us through difficult times in our lives. Ultimately, we have been provided with joy and happiness, for which we feel moved and changed. The meaning or experiences we found in their art or music is and was very much real. The positive impact they have had and the value of their art to us and to the world, should not be ignored or diminished.
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About Joshua Miles
Joshua is an experienced integrative psychotherapist. He's worked with both individuals and couples, assisting them in exploring their lives, experiences and relationships at depth. He provides people with a reflective space to consider their difficulties and explore their feelings. He works with adults of all ages in Shoreditch, East London.