The grief felt after the news of a celebrities’ death can often be akin to that felt towards a relative or friend. Although we do not know the celebrity and have generally never had a personal interaction with them, shared a meaningful conversation or experienced life alongside them, news of their death can leave us feeling bereaved and grief-stricken. After the recent passing of actress, Helen McCrory, I felt a sadness comparable to losing someone close to me. I knew Helen McCrory primarily from her role in Peaky Blinders, yet this did not lessen the loss I felt and her husband, Damien Lewis’, tribute to her in The Times brought me to tears.
So, why does one feel so personally affected by the passing of, ultimately, a stranger? Because fundamentally this is what Helen McCrory was, and is, to me. But a celebrity does not feel like a stranger to us. The connection we feel to people in the public eye should not be under-estimated. Celebrities are significant figures in our personal lives. We turn to them; be that a writer, actor, singer, activist, comedian or sports-person to bring us positivity. They make us laugh, bring us comfort, joy, inspire us and allow us to escape reality. The celebrities we follow are tangibly and explicitly connected to feelings of happiness and pleasure. Therefore, there should be no real surprise that their deaths leave us deeply unhappy.
Celebrities float between our reality and imaginary. We know they are real, but we do not know them personally. We connect to their character or their ‘on stage’ persona. We see celebrities as almost un-human. They possess a dependable infallibility which makes their death that much more shocking. We often place them in an alternate, abstract world, where death is not part of their narrative, yet when this inevitable destiny is written into their script their mortality becomes strikingly clear. They are not just a nebulous, joy-giving figure, but a human too and this is somewhat hard to grasp.
The connection we feel to people in the public eye has become even more essential in the past year. Locked inside, living through a global pandemic, the people on the stage, screen and sports-field have been the only ones permitted into our isolated bubbles. Family and friends have been barred from entering our homes, whilst the people we watch and listen to have maintained a privileged, un-restrained access. Their voices and images filling up our otherwise empty rooms. Many people have commented on how a film, TV series, radio show, podcast or sports team have been their saving grace in this pandemic. I have listened to Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show every evening throughout multiple lockdowns; a period of self-isolation and moments of hope because I count on her show to allow me to forget reality and relish in the music she plays. We have endowed these celebrities with the responsibility to make us feel better in uncertain times. They mean a lot to us. Their deaths, therefore, will mean a lot to us.
When a celebrity dies we generally have to accept a distant form of mourning. We aren’t invited to the funeral or burial, we are not surrounded by family and friends who are celebrating their life together. We do not get closure after their death. Yet, because of COVID-19 distant mourning has become the customary form even for those we do know. Traditional services for the dead have been cancelled or adapted to be “COVID-friendly”. There have been no celebrations or wakes held in people’s homes, hugs and hand holds of comfort have been forbidden. The image of the Queen sitting alone in a pew, masked, at her husband of seventy-three years’ funeral is a harrowing display of the seclusion and loneliness that this, now mandatory, form of grieving demands. We have all had to grieve in isolation and from afar; just like when a celebrity dies.
Following the First World War and the mass deaths that were inflicted, new forms of mourning emerged to cope with the innumerable, collective loss. Mourning went from private to public, with unprecedented public rituals of mourning established in Britain, such as the Cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and Armistice Day. There was a realisation of the need for communal togetherness during mourning. Yet, this has been unachievable during the pandemic. Members of the public were explicitly urged not to gather in Windsor for Prince Phillip’s funeral, making closure for the public near impossible. The pandemic has denied us the right to grieve together and in public, and illuminated how painful it is to grieve alone and at a distance.
Grieving needs to be a shared, open and supportive experience, for those closest to us and celebrities alike because both deaths strip us of a company we once cherished.
– Ellen Hodges
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