The front pages of several British newspapers, published following the death of David Bowie on 10 January, 2016

Good Grief

25th August 2017

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the untimely loss of Princess Diana, Deborah Mulhearn considers why the deaths of famous people, whom we’ve never met, have the power to deal a such powerful and emotional blow…

I remember exactly where I was on 16 August 1977. It was the day Elvis died. But it’s only stuck in my memory because I casually relayed the news to someone who promptly collapsed in sobs. She was older and it had never occurred to me in my callow youth that the death of someone you didn’t know could affect you in this way. I was flabbergasted and a little sceptical about this poor woman’s response. Elvis was great, I knew that, but clearly his death didn’t mean that much to me.

A few years later John Lennon died and I wasn’t quite so dismissive. In fact, I was heartbroken. But I was far away from home at the time and I rationalised my feelings as displaced homesickness. Talking endlessly about John Lennon and playing his music over and over meant I didn’t have to face the realities of my situation and make important life decisions. I was still young and life was ahead of me.

Even when Princess Diana died twenty years ago, I was, I admit, frankly puzzled at the outpouring of grief. She wasn’t a creative artist, after all, leaving the world with a wonderful legacy of song or art or literature that touched our souls, but an unhappy woman caught up in a very public drama and who came to a sudden and brutal end. I was as shocked as everyone else, but not grief-stricken as so many seemed to be.

“Grief is so multi-layered and complex, and our response to a famous person’s death is very personal to us,” says Karin Sieger, a psychotherapist and member of the BACP, who counsels on grief and bereavement. “It depends on what these famous people stand for in our lives, and also the circumstances surrounding their deaths.”

In Diana’s case, her youth and the shocking manner of her death, with conspiracy theories swirling around after the car crash, intensified the sense of grief and shock. “She clearly touched people and that sense of being misunderstood, the three-in-the-marriage syndrome, the painful rebuilding of a life after divorce, the sadness of leaving young children motherless, and her difficult relationships with her in-laws were just some of the many elements in her life people could relate to,” says Sieger.

And then, last year, David Bowie died. Before Bowie, I had only ever loved The Beatles and Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits. The Beatles, of course, were immortal (in those days, at least) and – sorry, Peter – my love for Herman was fickle and I soon moved on.

But Bowie…

Now people were disdainful of me. Was David Bowie’s death any different from Diana’s? The sense of loss and grief, while not the visceral pain of losing a close loved one, was disconcerting, discomforting and a little embarrassing. But enough people were feeling it for me to sanction myself, to almost wallow in that shared experience of ‘remote’ grief. Showing emotion on a more public platform is a bit more safe and acceptable, because everyone seems to be feeling it.

It’s not surprising that we are susceptible to this kind of emotional contagion, says Dr Hamira Riaz, a clinical psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society. “We live in a time of intense competition and consumerism, and our belief in once-trusted institutions has eroded.” With less to believe in, she says, we are left with a greater sense of isolation and disconnectedness. “So when someone in the public eye dies, not only does the 24/7 coverage make it difficult to ignore, we can get caught up in it because it is a shared interpersonal experience. Mainstream and social media might fuel this collectivism but in a sense we can all become co-creators of this public expression of shock and grief.”

This kind of shared mourning can have a cathartic effect, but there is a flip side, she adds. “Human beings are unique by virtue of the capacity for abstract thought. We are able to reflect on the past, celebrate the present and plan for the future, feel pride in our achievements and ponder on things we have left undone.” says Riaz. “But this self-awareness comes at a price – we live with the constant knowledge that it will all come to an end. There are schools of thought that suggest that this fear of mortality is a central driver in our existence and at the heart of most of our anxieties.”

She explains that, on a day to day basis, we are ingenious at defending ourselves from death awareness, by building successful careers, investing in family units, saving for the future, creating enduring works of art and so on. “But the death of a famous person taps into a fundamental fear, it acts as a wake-up call that it doesn’t matter how much privilege you enjoy, how much of a legacy you leave behind, no one is immortal – in the end, death comes to us all.”  

So the death of someone in the public eye shatters the illusion. Not only do they die, they often die sad and lonely deaths, with no one there to help. Diana was a princess but she didn’t have a fairytale ending.

From David Bowie to Debbie Reynolds, 2016 seemed to have been a constant reflection on our youth and perhaps our missed opportunities. For those of the same generation as Bowie, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael and many more who died last year, it reminds us of a part of our lives when we were young and hopeful. We are reminded of the passing of time and the frailty of life, and perhaps the opportunities we have missed.

“We see them as permanent and immortal and they give us meaning in our own lives so we can’t believe it when they are no longer there,” says Sieger. “But they are stellar people with ordinary diseases, and their deaths remind us that they are, in the end, as human as us. And because of that shared humanity, it’s normal to be touched by others’ sorrow. Sometimes we need a shared space to do that, and we are entitled to our feelings… it’s healthy to let those emotions come out.”

Studies have shown that thinking about death in a conscious way for five minutes a day over a week has beneficial mental health effects. It can help control the fear of it. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more scarce something is (like time), the more we value it,” says Dr Riaz. “Those who know they are dying, or who have had near-death experiences talk about life as becoming more vivid, more technicolour. The death of a much loved celebrity can be a pivotal moment in that it makes you look back to when you were young, when your life was ahead of you. It triggers the big existential questions.”

It’s no coincidence that this often happens in mid-life, adds Riaz. “That’s a time when we are reflecting on how our lives have turned out, compared to how we thought they would be. Mid-life can be an immensely powerful turning point for many because we still have time to course-correct and change the trajectory of our existence.”

Bowie was in sync with my life journey, Riaz tells me. His journey came to an end and I was drawn back into the territory of my own life and I couldn’t avoid it, partly because of my own need and partly because of media exposure.

I understand that it’s about other losses, other pain. That doesn’t make it any less real. I asked both therapists whether the emotion I and millions of others feel at the passing of a famous person is grief, and whether it is real. Both unequivocally said yes, if you feel it, it’s real. “Grief is a natural emotion and it’s about recognising it and allowing ourselves to experience it, and it can be cathartic,” says Sieger. “Dealing well with loss is at the heart of living well.”

Eighteen months after his death, when I hear David Bowie’s music or see pictures of him, my heart still leaps and I feel a pang of sadness. But it’s bittersweet. Bowie was always laughing and smiling, and I understand now that he brought colour into my life.

I wasn’t a superfan, I never met him, never saw him play live, don’t even own all his records. But he represented an awakening for my teenage self – music is surely the most direct strike to the teenage heart – from childhood to adolescence and from family to the wider world. He was a brilliant butterfly to my dull pupa. I moved from monochrome to colour, literally, as I think his early appearances on Top of the Pops happened to coincide with my family getting a colour tv for the first time.

As well as the sadness that he had lost his life relatively young, hearing and seeing so much of him last year evoked those memories. So now whenever I think of him I smile too.

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