In the lightning news and social media era, every celebrity death follows a pattern: Rumours, media circling to be the first to break the story, confirmed reports, outpouring of grief on social media, mockery of those who are expressing their grief. It can be timed, like clockwork, so familiar that it almost sometimes feels as though people are going through the motions of a choreographed dance, rather than actually experiencing each death on an individual level.
But they are, and the reaction of mockery is extremely frustrating, as people attempt to take on a jaded, hipster affectation to the whole thing — too good, you see, too above it all, to grieve themselves, and thus in a superior position and able to mock those who are grieving people they didn’t actually know. They pour out of the woodwork like slimy worms, there to add their contributions to a national and often international conversation, slashing around them at people who are choosing to deal with grief by talking about it.
‘You’re making it all about you,’ they say, ‘instead of the dead and their friends and family.’
What they do not seem to understand is that there is more than one kind of grief, and more than one kind of connection to a deceased individual. Some people make celebrity deaths about them in their own sense because they are about them, even if they didn’t meet that celebrity, never corresponded with them, never interacted with them in any way. Such deaths interact with society on an extremely complicated level, and to dismiss the public interaction with famous deaths as performative grief is rather reductive.
Celebrities become public figures for a reason — beyond cultivated personas developed by people who want them to appear in the public eye, there’s something about them, a charisma, a unique talent, an ability to be driven and to work hard for something. While people like to trash celebrities, especially women, suggesting that they’re lazy or rely on good looks or some such, they work hard to get where they are. Some work harder than others, courtesy institutional structures that create barriers for some that are more difficult to tear down. But all of them do in fact have to work.
Members of the public form strong and individualistic relationships with celebrities. Maybe it’s a singer they feel a link to through their music or their public persona, or an actor who speaks to them in various roles and public appearances, or a painter they feel connected to as they relate to their work. Celebrities are creating things with the goal of connecting with the public, and unsurprisingly, the public responds. For some, it can feel like a celebrity is speaking directly to them, is identifying parts of themselves that others do not understand, and many people have one or more celebrities with whom they feel a deep affinity.
Maybe it’s a musician who created work that made someone feel less alone and marginalised as a youth. Maybe it’s an actor who was open about mental health, giving someone the courage to speak out, or pushing someone to seek treatment. Maybe it’s a writer who spurred someone to try writing. It’s Bowie, or Robin Williams, or Harper Lee, someone with a huge public profile and famous body of work who struck at the heart of the public in some way.
So people are sad when these figures die, because something has been lost. And they talk about it. Before social media, they talked about it in their own lives, but also, yes, in newspaper and magazine columns, in conversations — this tendency of connecting deeply with the dead is not unique to the modern iteration of the internet era. Many of those who were alive at the time of the Kennedy assassination remember where they were when they heard. Those of us alive at the time of the 11 September attacks — in the age of the internet, but before the aggressive rise of social media — remember where we were when we heard, and the strange, floating, surreal emotions we experienced. We sought connection because this was a complicated national experience. I didn’t know anyone who died on 11 September, but that doesn’t make me less connected to it: It just makes me connected in a different way.
The family and friends of the deceased experience a very real, immediate, complex, articulated grief. But so do those who connected with them through their creative work, because they are grieving a real loss too. They are grieving what those celebrities gave to them, they are grieving what might have been, they are in some cases grieving the loss of an era and a culture. This is not wrong, and it’s not something that people should be mocked for — it’s a testimony to a connected culture.
People accused public mourners of being performative or ‘making it all about them’ when they talk about celebrity deaths, but it’s not unreasonable for people to talk about a death that touched them. Most people in the United States didn’t know Kennedy personally — they were still deeply affected by his death. Most people in the United States didn’t know people who died on that glossy September day — but they were still deeply affected by it.
What would be wrong, what would be performative and cruel, would be for people to be forced to remain silent about things that interact with their sense of identity, with the way they navigate the world around them. The way people talk about celebrity deaths is a form of testimony, as people articulate what celebrities meant to them and how their deaths affect them. It serves, too, as a reminder that people should appreciate the living while they are alive, but the vast majority of people with a deep appreciation for celebrities and their output never get to meet them, to interact with them, while they are living. They can testify to what these celebrities mean to them, but it is sometimes through collective grief that they are able to find their people, those who share those experiences. Those who are petty enough to mock that instead of minding their own business should really question their lives.
Image: Bouquet, kanonn, Flickr