The death of David Bowie last week left many fans mourning, some seemingly grief stricken. While millions of people worldwide expressed their feelings, others were left flabbergasted over such personal reactions. ‘You didn’t know him, so why are you so upset?’
Is there a grief rulebook that says who and what we should grieve for? Is it grief we feel when someone we have never met dies? And does the experience of grieving for a celebrity help break down barriers about death, dying and loss? This blog considers these issues via conversations with Cheshire Living Well, Dying Well Partnership colleagues and excerpts from a fraction of the many news and social media features.
The question why do we grieve famous people we have never met, immediately provoked comment about how we define grief and the difference between the death of a family member or a friend compared to someone we have never met.
“Personally, I don’t feel I do grieve for famous people I’ve not met. I think it is possible to feel a sense of sadness (especially if it is perceived to be ‘before their time’) and in some cases a sense of loss, as they may have been part of your cultural landscape or significant in your youth. I think true grief is something different and more personal and is felt when a close personal significant-other dies.” Ruth
“I’m afraid I don’t grieve celebrities – whilst I think it is sad anyone passes away too early – I think there are other more important things to worry about than people I don’t know.” Nicola
A follow up question, ‘has the death of a famous person affected you. And if so, whom and why?’ however, demonstrates a close and sometimes intimate connection with people we have never met.
“Pop star Marc Bolan because I was young and impressionable! Barry White and maestro Michael Jackson due to his gifted feet and magic music, Tommy Cooper and Nelson Mandela made me feel very sad. More recently, Cilla Black. I thought she had the gift of reaching out to people and I grew up with her. She was continually in my front room, so to speak.” Joy
“I was affected by both the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr. I was quite young at the time they happened and I was just beginning to develop my political opinions so they ‘hit me’ at a time when I perceived positive political change as being possible. It felt to be a real loss of hope and optimism. I suppose in a ‘celebrity’ way it was John Lennon as this was the first person of cultural significance of my own generation who died both early and in a violent way.” Ruth
In the days following Bowie’s death, news and social media grappled with similar topics. A feature on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show considered whether fans have a right to grieve as though Bowie was a member of their own family. Social media was a wash with questions such as “Am I more upset than I should be about a celebrity death?" A post on theVox Culturewebsite by Caroline Framke described how she advised a friend that she could mourn however she wanted, but didn’t quite have the words to convey why until she saw the tweet below:
The tweet encapsulates comments from my colleagues and on social media. Great artists, politicians, activists and others we’ve never met can reach out to us in a profound way. We grow up with these people. They remind us about who we are and the connections we make. We might feel we really get to know someone. My dictionary mirrors this by defining grief as a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something that has died, to which a bond or affection was formed. Perhaps the important thing is to respect how people express their sorrow whoever or whatever their loss is.
A feature onHeadspace Perspective– a website that aims to move forward after loss with ‘passion, humour and style’ – states, “We don’t have the right to judge anyone else’s grief, whether you are grieving for someone you know or for someone you have never met. And grief can be whatever expressed however you choose.”
Surely a positive aspect to come out of these discussions is that we talking about life, age, death and loss.
“I definitely think that the death of a celebrity or famous person opens up the channels and the opportunities to discuss death, dying and loss. Many people will discuss or talk about a famous person’s death, and if we use Bowie as an example, we can’t help but be inspired by his fantastic approach to life planning. He fulfilled some late personal ambitions and took the opportunity to say goodbye to friends and colleagues and to die in the way he wanted. Sounds like a great example for our Cheshire Living Well, Dying Well Partnership ethos.” Ruth