Helen Nianias | Contributing writer | Monday, 18 January 2016

When A Celebrity Dies, Are We Really Grieving?

When A Celebrity Dies, Are We Really Grieving?

The Debrief: When a public figure dies, there’s one question: where were you?

Whether it’s the assassination of JFK, the death of Princess Diana, or the day, a whole week ago, when David Bowie died, it seems to be human nature to make an event – the death of a normal person – personal. The death, it seems, isn’t private but public – and the enormously emotional displays in response to the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman show that the deaths of public figures are personal. Or, at least, that we treat them as personal.

 The late critic Christopher Hitchens made a masterful documentary examining the new phenomenon of public grief, and the demise of the British stiff upper lip. In Diana: The Mourning After asks important questions about what it means to genuinely mourn, and how a 24-hour media and an increased focus on our emotions has made us so much more expressive with our grief. And – it’s important to add here – whether we can grieve for someone we didn’t know. Not whether we should, but whether that sincere emotion is really there to properly grieve. Whether the way we react to the death of a celebrity ('RIP Princess Diana') is in any way similar to how you respond when someone you know dies (where you would send a letter of condolences to their surviving family members). Look, I don’t know. Watch it and see what you think.

In seminal piece of grief-lit, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about her husband dying suddenly of a heart attack. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” If you have ever lost anyone you love, you need to read this book. It will understand you. 

Anyway, in the book Didion talks about the mechanics of sadness and how it can physically affect you – she examines studies that show if you’re grieving intensely you are more likely to die yourself. Diahorrea, low blood pressure, the inability to eat – these are all things that can happen when someone you love dies.

And of course we can be upset in different ways – just because you weren’t married to someone, it doesn’t mean we won’t find their death sad. But is it really accurate to classify our sadness as 'grief?'

'Grief is very difficult to describe,' says Cruse Bereavement Helpline manager Helen Butlin. 'Sometimes the loss of a public figure can bring out different feelings, and some can trigger emotions of earlier personal bereavements. It’s often easier for us to all express our feelings at the same time.'

When David Bowie and Alan Rickman died, I thought it was sad because it’s sad when anyone dies. But I felt unable to share in the collective sense of loss. I think part of this is because recently lost a good friend, Joe, in an accident and find it odd that people would want to feel that kind of grief. He was 27. I would wake up crying and see him everywhere for months afterwards. He died in April and I think I've just started to accept it. I can’t even imagine how his parents or his girlfriend feel. I don’t think I want to know – it would swallow me up. It’s very difficult to imagine how anyone could feel that sad for someone they didn’t know.

Joe’s girlfriend, Immy, says that she understands being upset when someone that you admire dies, but that it’s difficult when she hears people use the word 'grief' for a celebrity. 

'Any of the Bowie or Rickman fans - ie people who didn't have a personal relationship with them; they've still got all that they ever had. As in, they can still listen to Bowie songs, watch Rickman films. It will be a different, more poignant experience now that they've died - but ultimately for fans, they love the art that these two men produced - and that is all still there for them, unchanged. Which is great!' she says.

'What the fans are experiencing should not be given that same word, 'grief', to describe what Rickman and Bowie's families and close friends are going through. It is just not the same. Grieving for a partner, someone you're in love with - someone who completely understood you, made you laugh, listened to your tedious work problems, binge watched shows with you, brought you tea in bed when you're too hungover to get up... means missing them and wishing they were here with you all the fucking time.' 

It can feel confusing when someone’s upset about the death of a person they didn’t know, says Butlin. 'But the sadness of the person mourning a celebrity could be related to personal bereavement – perhaps their father was the same age or they also know someone who died of cancer. It reminds people of their own mortality, too.' 

Certainly, we can be touched by someone we didn’t know – whether it was Bowie’s Life On Mars or Alan Rickman’s role as Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility. We can feel like we know people intimately, despite not knowing them at all.

However, the closer you are to a person or the closer your relationship is, the stronger your grief is. Butlin says: 'People experience things in different ways, and different words mean different things to people. I often talk about grief being a continuation of the love you felt for them, but when someone says they ‘love’ the person who died, that word means something different for everybody.'

Immy agrees that words have failed us. 'Missing someone constantly is what I know to be "grief," "devastated" and "heartbroken." It's a perversion of language when these words are adopted by fans. So maybe we just need more than just the one word to describe something so big, confusing and so complex than just 'grief'?'

The idea that grief is a narrow thing with a strict set of rules is ridiculous. There will be as many ways of grieving as there are people on the planet. So it might be best to be aware of the connotations of the word for the people who have suffered in the most shocking ways when we’re discussing how sad we are. Perhaps social media doesn’t allow us to sufficiently discuss our feelings – it’s an artificial discussion where people shout and take offense. Not only is the word 'grief' too narrow, but the way we’re trying to articulate our feelings is too constricted. Sorrow takes many forms. Maybe it can’t be put into words, let alone typed into 140 characters. 

You might also be interested in: 

What It really Feels Like To Lose A Friend To Drugs 

Things You Only Know If Your Best Friend Had Died 

Ask An Adult: Why Am I Afraid Of Dying? 

Follow Helen on Twitter @helennianias