The Pressure of Public Grief

In a society with very peculiar attitudes about death and grieving, navigating loss becomes even more complex when you lead a public life. For celebrities, death is accompanied not just with the tide of emotions and the tragic bureaucracy of wrapping the decedent’s affairs, but also with scrutiny from the outside world, all eyes on you and your family at one of the most vulnerable times in your life. And in a world where celebrities are considered part of the public commons, naturally their grief is subject to audits and discussions, and they will be informed if their performance of grief is found wanting.

Grief manifests so differently in everyone, depending not just on their own character and emotions, but also the specifics of the situation. Celebrities, like the rest of us, are human, and their grief too takes many complex forms; it can be conflicted, it can be intense, it can be overwhelming at times. Whether they’re losing family members, partners, friends, close associates, beloved members of the industry, or other people around them, they have to process their emotions while also being aware of the fact that they are constantly being watched.

There’s a widespread belief that grief should be brief and tidy, yet when celebrities keep their public expressions of grief to a minimum, they’re often chastised for it. Despite the fact that society in general says people should suck it down and get back to work, apparently that doesn’t apply to celebrities, who need to look appropriately ruffled and tearstained in order to satisfy audiences. At the same time, if they grieve too much, they’ll get condemned for that, too. The line between not enough and too much, though, isn’t easily defined and it’s easy to stray to one side or the other.

If you wear the wrong clothes, say the wrong thing, look too happy, restart filming too early, you’ll be docked points. You must adhere very carefully to a set of unstated rules that seem to constantly move at the whim of the public, especially for female celebrities. You’re insensitive if you start dating too soon after the loss of a partner, but on the other hand, if you remain single or decide not to date again, there’s obviously something wrong with you and you’re hung up on the death of your lover. If you dedicate an album to your mother, that’s touching, but if you talk about her memory too much, that’s a little suspect.

The shifting sands celebrities navigate in their daily lives become even more treacherous with death, when the rapacious public waits eagerly to nip at the heels of people who may be struggling with the mundane details and the overwhelming emotional load. Women in particular will naturally be closely evaluated for any signs of being ’emotionally disturbed,’ as presumably they are too fragile to handle the immensity and complexity of death; and if they do experience depression, mania, or other intense emotional responses to deaths, they will be trailed by paparazzi eager to catch their moments of shame and share them with the world.

When the person who died was also a public figure, this can complicate matters even more, because suddenly the public is very invested in how the death is handled. They want to know about the disposition of the estate, the funeral arrangements, who will be present at the ceremony, and more. Their sense of ownership in life carries over in death; look, for example, at how angry some people are about the way Yoko Ono chose to process John Lennon’s death, and continues to do so in her work. They condemn her for handling his death in the way she feels is appropriate, believing they own Lennon and have more to say about how to respect his memory than his own wife does.

People argue that celebrities signed up for public lives and chose to stay in the spotlight rather than moving out of it and developing a more private life, but that’s not entirely fair. Some people are celebrities by their very nature and have no choice in the matter; Malia and Sasha Obama, no matter who they become, for example, will always be the daughters of Barack and Michelle Obama, and they will always be closely watched. Artists and creators, meanwhile, achieve fame through the work they may feel compelled to do because it’s important and they love it; quitting isn’t an option not just because they can’t imagine stopping but because they also need to survive. And even if they choose to retire to escape public life, they’re still going to be remembered for their achievements and that means they’re always going to be figures of interest.

There’s no way of knowing what will set you on the path to celebrity and keep you there. And even for people who consciously set out in search of fame, this attitude that anything goes and they were asking for it is repugnant. Celebrities, too, deserve privacy. They deserve respect and acknowledgement as human beings. They deserve opportunities to mourn in the way they feel is more appropriate, whether that be wearing black for a year and holding a series of memorials or quietly holding a brief private ceremony and then moving on in public, focusing on their work and their communities.

To say that celebrities get what they deserve and that they belong to the public is to treat them like objects, not like people, and that strays into very dangerous territory. To fail to acknowledge their humanity, to refuse to admit that they, too, experience a range of human emotions, is patently ridiculous, and makes it all the more easy for people to become violently outraged when celebrities don’t perform in exactly the way they want them to. No one person can be all things to all people, and celebrities are no exception to that rule.