Death at one's elbow: celebrities, fans and the grieving process

Death at one's elbow: celebrities, fans and the grieving process

First it came for Bowie, and before the tears had even dried Rickman was gone too; but why are we mourning people we've never even met?

Eliot’s cruellest month may have been April, but if he were alive today he’d be forced to consider giving January the honour. But instead of breeding lilacs out of the dead land, this month seems intent on doing the opposite.

Barely double digits, 2016 took a nosedive when the news broke that, just three days after releasing his resoundingly-lauded Blackstar, David Bowie had succumbed to cancer. Four days later, before the world had had the chance to collectively exit the ‘denial’ stage, another blow came in the form of Alan Rickman’s death, also from cancer.

Story-fodder for years to come, the answer to the ‘where were you when you heard David Bowie had died’ question will be, for many: ‘on social media.’ A collectively shocked and pissed-off general public took to the web to air their woes and search for comfort in the digital arms of others as the shockwave rippled on.

When Alan Rickman’s death was announced a handful of days later, a Facebook post on my feed summed up the reaction of most people I know: ‘Fuck you cancer. Take a day off.’

Posting our grief on social media is a phenomenon that divides as much as it unites; the ‘grief police’ will always be around to let people know how, where and why you should be feeling sad. It’s a topic addressed by the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, recently, when she spoke out about writing a raw and frank post about the sudden death of her husband back in May 2015. She says: ‘People started talking to me more openly. And even strangers, because I’m not the only person who experienced loss this year or in previous years.’

They say death is the last taboo, and it's as true online as it is in person, but the perceived detachment offered by social media encourages discussion, conversation and acknowledgement of world-shifting experiences. The technology is there, and on it we share news of our breakfasts, our pets, our families. Why not our grief?

Bowie fan, Natalie, found solace in social media: ‘Twitter is a great medium for talking to like-minded people and was the first place I turned when I heard the news. It was really lovely to share stories with ordinary people who felt the same way I did about Bowie. I didn't see any oneupmanship, just real emotion and shocked sadness.’

While the phenomenon of sharing every thought and feeling online is a relatively new one, it’s not as though we’ve never publically united to mourn the death of a public figure before.

‘You could refer to the death and the funeral of Winston Churchill,’ says Dr Lars Davidsson, Medical Director of the Angloeuropeanclinic Ltd. ‘There were about a million people lining the road when his coffin passed through London. I think people have always been mourning public figures who die, it’s just that Facebook and Twitter provide us with the technology to do it in a different way.’

These new technologies are often the precipitant as well as the solution. Social media, particularly Twitter, allows artists and celebrities to connect to their fans in a way they never could before, allowing for closer perceived bonds and a more intimate access to their everyday lives. So it’s not the most unusual occurrence for the fan/celebrity relationship to become a reality: Wizards of Waverly Place actor Jake T Austin recently announced on Instagram that he is now in a relationship with a fan who had ‘Twitter stalked’ him for six years.

Alan Rickman fan, Janelle, says: ‘Life is about connectedness, and if someone I never met can bring me into an (metaphorical) embrace with even more humans I’ve never met, then that is a beautiful collective experience. How lucky we are to have such support and opportunity. Knowing we’re not crazy for crying over someone we don’t know. Knowing we’re all rather alike, in fact, and need that hand to hold through shared posts and favourite scenes.’

If the goal of an artist is to create work that moves and engages, it’s only natural to also feel bound to the artist themselves.


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