I hear you thinking… “Wait. Aren’t you a writer, not a psychologist? Why on earth would you write about this?” Two reasons: First, I’ve been trying to sort out my own insanity lately and, second, I think writers and other creatives may be more susceptible to this than others. I think there’s a need to know why this happens and that it doesn’t make us crazy or wrong.
(And you’re right, I’m not a doctor. So none of what follows is medical advice. Simply the observations of someone who’s grieved for a lot of people she never met.)
2016 took the cake for me as far as celebrity deaths went. It started with David Bowie and ended with Carrie Fisher, claiming plenty of greats in between… Prince, Alan Rickman, George Michael, Alan Thicke… The list went on. And on. It seemed like all of the people who’d touched my life artistically were dying. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I cried for every one. (And we won’t talk about what happened when Princess Diana, Jim Henson, Terry Pratchett, and Robin Williams died.)
(And I know I’ll be bawling again later this year when I go to see The Last Jedi, Fisher’s last turn as Leia Organa. I was a kid when Star Wars hit theaters and she quickly became my idol, the ideal for what a princess/heroine should be: Beautiful, intelligent, and kick-ass. It’s gonna be tough to watch that movie.)
Now, some of this is simply a fact of getting older. As I get older, my heroes do, too. It’s inevitable that some will die. But many of those who died last year were particularly shocking. Bowie and Rickman were both 69. That feels far too young. They should have had another decade, at least. George Michael and Prince were even younger. Carrie Fisher was barely 60. Thicke was almost 60. I know that to younger readers these ages seem impossibly old. But they’re not. They come faster than you think. And I know that sentence makes me seem old. So be it.
And that’s the point.
The death of a celebrity brings home our own mortality in a rude awakening sort of way. “If the great and the good, the heroes, can die,” we think, “Then I have no chance.” Intellectually you know this all along, of course. No one gets out alive, the joke goes. But certain people seem like they should go on forever. When they don’t… Well, it makes us sad. Both for them and for ourselves.
There are other reasons we grieve for people we never met. Sometimes it’s because they touched us so deeply and we feel regret because we never had the chance to say so. This mirrors our regrets when dealing with the deaths of people we know. There’s always regret for the words unsaid. We think, “Oh, he gets so much fan mail, I won’t send mine because it’s stupid.” And then, when they die, we regret having said nothing. There’s value in having said, “Thank you,” even if you felt like it went into a vacuum of fan mail and fawning. To miss that opportunity is to have to process some regret.
Sometimes people we don’t know show us the best in ourselves. They show us how good we could be. We see our best reflected in them and we mourn the loss of that “best” in the world. Sometimes we see it in their charity work, generosity, activism, or mentoring of younger talent. We realize that there was a human being underneath the gloss, someone who could connect with others and made the world a better place. When they’re gone, the world seems to be a poorer place. It’s not necessarily the loss of the person we mourn, but the loss of something good, some higher ideal, some light in the darkness.
And, of course, there’s the fact that some of these people were instrumental in shaping our lives, even though they weren’t a parent or teacher. A song, a book, a movie role… These things can change our lives. They make us feel better when we’re down. They see us through tough times. Anyone with an interest in the arts has had pieces of their life marked by another’s work. I can instantly hear a song and know where I was and what I was doing when it was important in my life. There aren’t many “real” people who can make that kind of impression in a life. Whether it seems rational or not, that kind of influence forges a bond and when that bond is broken by death, grief is the only result. Sure, we didn’t know the person, but their art or influence made us feel like they were there for us, like they showed us something important, or let us in on some secret.
Finally, there’s the simple fact that grief doesn’t make sense. At all. The experience of it is as unique as the individual and the moment in which it occurs. You may have no feeling over the death of a family member, but the death of a pop star reduces you to tears. Maybe there are things going on in your life at the time that make a celebrity’s death just one wrong thing too many. Sometimes we end up transferring the things we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to feel for “real” people over to people we don’t know. It’s not logical, but it can be a way of protecting yourself, or dealing with feelings from a safer distance.
As writers and creatives, most of us have a pretty well developed sense of empathy. Our ability to put ourselves into the shoes of others works great for our art. It makes it easier to translate feelings to the page, stage, or canvas. But it also, I think, makes it easier for us to grieve for people we don’t know. We’re all too able to imagine how their loved ones and friends are feeling. We have no trouble imagining what those last moments/months must have been like, or how (sometimes) their demons followed them to the grave. Empathy is a wonderful thing, but it can also lead us to take on feelings that are not ours as if they are.
All of this to say, if you find yourself grieving for someone you never met, it’s okay. Humans are made of messy emotions. It’s what separates us from animals. There isn’t always any rhyme or reason for why one thing brings us to our knees and others don’t. And the really funny thing is, you don’t get a say in any of it. Your mind will deal with things as it sees fit. Don’t listen when people deride you for your feelings. Having feelings, the ability to grieve at all, is far better than being someone who lives all bottled up and never lets life and all its wonder and messiness inside.
(Of course, if you find yourself unable to shake your grief, no matter who it’s for, it may be time to seek professional help. There’s nothing fine or noble in going through life feeling wretched when there are people who can help you.)