Celebrity deaths: why do they affect us?

Freeman Brothers has been based in Horsham since 1855 and, as Funeral Directors in local communities throughout West Sussex, serves bereaved people with kindness and professionalism. However, the company also feels it has a remit in discussing wider issues around death and funerals, and recognises that bereavement can take many forms. Here, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, […]

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Freeman Brothers - to live in hearts

Freeman Brothers has been based in Horsham since 1855 and, as Funeral Directors in local communities throughout West Sussex, serves bereaved people with kindness and professionalism. However, the company also feels it has a remit in discussing wider issues around death and funerals, and recognises that bereavement can take many forms. Here, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, talks about the feelings of grief that can come when a celebrity dies.

We all know that grief can be complicated, and feedback from customers, as well as our own experiences, has taught our team that we can sometimes be surprised by the effect it can have- including when someone who we don’t know dies. The recent deaths of, for example, Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins and cricketer Shane Warne led to public sadness expressed in ways that seemed similar to a more personal bereavement. These feelings can be hard to explain, so I asked some of the team about times they had been moved by the death of a celebrity and why, to try to explore what might motivate this grief.

After looking at the responses, I found a few areas of commonality: this is not meant to be a definitive or a fully inclusive list of all the reasons there could be to feel this type of loss. It should also be noted that some of the responses were given to me anonymously.

Association with people who are closer to us

What was noticeable was that many of the team’s responses explaining why they had been affected by a celebrity’s death related that person to their own family. For example, Vicky talked about Shirley Hughes, and said ‘I raised my four children on her delightful stories, the favourite being ‘Dogger’’. Another colleague spoke of sharing her love for George Michael with her mum, and that was why his death had struck her.

It makes sense that we do not ‘know’ celebrities in a vacuum. There will always be other people who feel the same about them as we do. When that is someone who we are close to, there is an increase in the commonality shared, and perhaps, when that person dies, we feel the loss of this commonality too.

Nostalgia

Vicky’s memory of Shirley Hughes was quite typical of the Freeman Brothers team in that particular people were often associated with happiness from the past. One of the celebrity deaths that affected me the most was Sir Terry Pratchett, whose works I discovered as a teenager. I associated his books with that time in my life, and so knowing he would not produce any more memorable characters and storylines for me to discover- and feel like a younger person again in the process!- saddened me greatly.

Other team members had similar experiences, such as one member of the team who had some great memories of watching Shane Warne play cricket as a child. It’s understandable that a person to whom we attach positive memories or experiences has more of a significance to us, giving us a sense of closeness to them.

Relatability

Many of the team spoke about being especially upset when someone they related to died- either the person themselves, or the reason for their death. For example, Amy Winehouse was mentioned by various members of the team as someone whose songs about difficult love and heartbreak made her someone they felt a connection to.

Chadwick Boseman’s death had a particular impact on Becky as his death came not long after she had experienced significant surgery- she especially found the commentary of people not knowing that he had been unwell relatable, because her own experience with illness made her feel very strongly that every person is entitled to privacy around their health- famous or not.

Someone who seems to span both of these ‘relatable’ ideas is Sarah Harding, the Girls Aloud singer, who died of breast cancer at 39. The idea that she stood out as the less conventional tomboy in a group of glamorous women- someone not quite fitting in with a group- seemed to resonate with plenty of us. More than one of us also knew someone who had died of cancer at a young age- one of the team had a friend who had died of the same cancer at the same age as Harding. Her autobiography, which was released in the year that she died, was an incredibly honest description of her life and illness, and contributed to ideas of her as a relatable, ‘normal’ woman experiencing what so many of those we know have done during a cancer diagnosis. As with having happy memories involving a famous person, being able to relate to a celebrity- whether in life or death- thus heightens sadness when they die.

Empathy with the circumstances of a death

More than one of the team commented on how a particular person’s death had resonated with them more because of how they died. Chrissie commented that the death of Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of Whitney Houston, upset her because of the similarities between the deaths of the two, with both dying following accidental submersion in their baths. The idea of history having repeated itself was something she connected with.

Several mentions of famous people were of those who had died by suicide. One colleague commented that Robin Williams’ death was especially poignant to her- as a comedian who had made her laugh on many occasions, the idea that he was ‘suffering within’ while she was ‘busy laughing’ has stayed with her.

The recent death of Taylor Hawkins prompted many outpourings of grief, including for Dave Grohl, who has now lost two close friends and bandmates in unexpected circumstances, with Hawkins’ death being preceded by that of Grohl’s Nirvana colleague Kurt Cobain to suicide in 1994. This image, by US-based tattoo artist, Danny Argote, of Hawkins and Cobain has widely circulated on social media since Hawkins’ death and is a poignant reminder of this double grief for Grohl, which many people can probably empathise with. Empathy is generally thought to be one of the main tools in building relationships, so it’s probably no surprise that feeling empathy for a particular situation leads us to feel closer to it.

Unfulfilled potential

Unprompted by me, two of the team used the term ‘unfulfilled potential’- one when talking about Alan Rickman. Jen mentioned Victoria Wood in this context- the idea that there would be no future material from someone who had made her laugh so much. There were lots of ideas like this- someone’s death being ‘too soon’ (especially if they were young) or a ‘waste’. I think this fits in with a fear that many of us have of dying unfulfilled or ‘incomplete’- this is only emphasised more when we ascribe it to someone who we feel has particularly significant abilities or talents.

Any conclusions I can draw from having these conversations are only mine, but I think it’s interesting that what came from their reflections was how, although the people they were talking about were strangers, the connections they had to them- whether through empathising with their situation, or because the person in question reminded them of their own past or people who they did know- didn’t seem to feel like that. Not every celebrity death affected everyone, of course. I am minded to conclude that, when a celebrity dies, those who are affected by it, are, because the famous person isn’t a stranger to them in the ways that matter- in memories, in connections, in attachments that empathy creates. We grieve those whose loss means something, whoever they were.

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Written by Abi Pattenden

Manager

May 18, 2022

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