In the last week the world lost two larger than life characters, singer and actor David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman. For many people it came as a shock that these two men, both aged 69 had been fighting secret battles with cancer and sadly passed away at an age no one had expected. The out pouring on social media was tangible. Not only from those who knew, loved and worked with these two men, but also hundreds of thousands of everyday people who admired and enjoyed their art over their decades of fame. But why do we feel grief over people that are essentially strangers in the physical sense?
The first time I felt grief for a celebrity was the death of Steve Irwin whilst I was still in high school. It was such a shock to everyone that a man of such vibrancy and zest for life and adventure passed away suddenly in an accident. Steve Irwin had been so frequently in my home in a way; watching his shows, his frequent talk show appearances and in the news. He was such an iconic figure in Australia and also a very passionate and loving man with a family he very clearly adored. Looking back I think I felt the loss not only out of empathy for his family, but also for Australia, for all the wonderful work he did for wildlife and the environment and for the loss of such a generous and gentle spirit.
The phenomenon in which we feel we have a relationship and connection with celebrities despite the fact we may never meet them is known as Parasocial Interaction. Particularly in the world of mass media these days we can form strong illusions of a bond through regular interaction with their stories and images on television, in magazines and the news and through social media like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
It can appear that some are simply trying to get to the news first on social media when the RIPs begin outpouring at such speed, however, there are many people who do genuinely feel varying levels of grief for celebrity deaths. There are some people who may have developed an obsessive connection with a celebrity to fill voids in their own lives. And in come cases a celebrity death can even be a provocation for dealing with the death of a loved one or friend that a person may not fully have come to terms with. For most people it is perfectly natural to feel the loss of a person we feel we have known in a small way through the interaction of art or their story that has touched us on a personal level, particularly their struggles with addiction, abuse, discrimination or disease.
The impact of art on the world, although often underrated, is substantial. Art can inspire powerful emotional connections in a person through our ability to personal identify with its story and meaning and be entertained, inspired, provoked and confronted by it. Many of the sentiments I have seen in the last week have expressed their sorrow in the significance David Bowie’s music and personality had in their lives, be it memories of their youth, emotional connection to a particular song, inspiration to aspiring artists and his proud individualism. Equally Alan Rickman was such an iconic actor of film and stage who featured in some of the most popular films of the last few decades and was loved by many despite often playing the villain such as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. For the latest generation he was part villain, part hero Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series and will continue in the imagination of many children as such a pivotal figure.
Lastly the passing of these two great men is a reminder to many of the devastating impact cancer has on most families in the world, and many of us can relate to the heart ache and long struggle that the disease has on sufferers and their loved ones. Grief impacts us all differently and its ok to feel these emotions and express them. If you find yourself struggling to cope with grief as many people do there are many specialised counsellors who can help you through the process.