Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
The death of Prince raises several interesting questions about grief following the death of a celebrity. Is it possible to truly grieve for someone you’ve never met personally? So many posts on Facebook state that people are “gutted,” “heartbroken”, “devastated” in the wake of this very public loss. As with the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, Eva Peron and David Bowie, why do you suppose people feel such strong bonds to certain celebrities and public figures? Grief and grieving are complex, I know, but might you have any advice for people on how to cope with/heal from the death of a celebrity?
Sofi Papamarko, Reporter with the Toronto Star
We grieve all those to whom we are attached, whether by bonds of kinship, love, or identification. When the person we lose matters to us greatly, loss of their presence and participation–even symbolic participation–in our lives leaves us feeling reduced and impoverished, and the sadness, withdrawal and loss of meaning that we call grief is a natural response. Rather than questioning the legitimacy of this experience in the case of the death of a celebrity with whom we are highly identified, it might be more appropriate to marvel at the human capacity to invest ourselves greatly in the lives of others, well beyond our immediate circle of family and friends.
In a sense, the loss of a public figure can trigger the purest form of grief, in the sense that they may embody our ideals in a way that is less complicated by the disappointment, ambivalence and occasional conflict that can characterize our closest relationships. Celebrities in particular may exemplify our values, ideals and aspirations, and so their death may represent the death of a part of ourselves. Especially when this identification was forged in our teen years, when we are passionately seeking models on which to construct an emerging sense of self, our bonds with famous figures can be intense, and for the part of us that yearns to retain that youthful part of ourselves, witnessing their passing easily triggers our nostalgia for a keenly meaningful chapter in our own life stories, and the resulting grief can be very real.
One ironic advantage of losing a celebrity with whom we are highly identified is that countless others will be mourning the same loss, affording us generous opportunities to share our grief and our remembrance of the deceased. Many losses in life are relatively invisible, and easily become silent stories that find no audience, leaving us feeling more alone and disconnected from the social world. In contrast, the death of a celebrity offers numerous opportunities to honor the deceased in venues as public as mass funerals or celebrations of their lives, and as private as an anonymous post on a grief blog or web site. For some, reflecting on what features the celebrity embodied that we value (whether creativity, the pursuit of social justice, or achievement) and can strive to extend in our own lives can be a source of both consolation and personal growth, honoring the other by dedicating ourselves to continuing their legacy.