Why We Mourn Dead Celebrities

You might think it’s daft to feel sad when your favourite singers or actors die, but it’s not. Let me tell you why…

Earlier this week I tweeted the above picture of a young, dapper Patrick Stewart. A good-looking older guy, I wasn’t that surprised he was all cheekbones and smoulders in his youth.

As expected, the praise soon poured in as Twitter swooned over the 79-year-old Star Trek actor, calling him “a babe” who “would definitely get it.” I agreed, adding that he’d “aged like a fine wine.”

Then one follower, Kaytee McShane, commented:

“That looks a lot like Andy Whitfield. Rest in Peace.”

And she was right. The guy in the black-and-white picture does look a lot like Welsh-born actor Andy Whitfield (who died of cancer back in 2011 at the age of 39) because he is Andy Whitfield. The internet lied to me. Shock horror!

For anyone curious, this is what a young Patrick Stewart actually looks like:

Anyway, feeling like a fool with the same flair for fact-checking as Donald “Cheeto” Trump, I quickly deleted my tweet. Kaytee’s, though, stayed right where it was, going viral (ish) with 26 comments, 67 retweets and 1,098 likes.

My error aside, her heartfelt wishes of an eternity’s rest and peace opened a moving dialogue I hadn’t bargained for. There, she and other fans came together, conveying a shared — and, I think, very real — sadness at Whitfield’s untimely passing 9 years ago.

These users exchanged fond memories of the actor — perhaps best known for his role in 2010 Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand — and found comfort in playful references to his striking appearance.

Kaytee says,

“People might consider TV shows and actors to be just entertainment, but Andy’s battle and passing hit us hard.”

Scrolling through the conversation, it became clear plenty of others were affected by the actor’s death in the same way. This led me to wonder why the loss of a celebrity has such a strong impact on the public.

Together, we grieve for the likes of Whitfield, and for all the Bowies and Ledgers and Cobains and Jacksons and Monroes. And our grief isn’t some pseudo-grief, but a genuine, penetrating one that inspires us to gather with strangers, join hands, hug, weep, light candles and lay flowers.

While we feel it acutely — and I say we because I’m no exception, even though my hollow-tin-chested inner cynic so desperately wants me to tell you otherwise — this strange, almost illicit grief seems to make little sense. But maybe it makes more sense than is, at first, obvious?

I’d like to believe the phenomenon extends beyond the fact that, once gone, our favourite personalities won’t ever create anything new. That would be incredibly selfish. Sure, we’ll never see another film or song or novel or painting or whatever it was they were famed for making, but that’s a mere pity, not a cause for sorrow.

Although we may think so, we don’t really know these people — not like we know our friends and family, anyway. Be that as it may, their faces are everywhere, as is the work we admire and respect them for: on television, on billboards, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines. In other words, to us, they’re familiar. The world is designed in such a way they can’t be anything but familiar.

And so I trust our grief has more to do with this familiarity, with perceiving celebrities as part of our lives, as the distant friends we grew up with, as our role models, as the ones behind the ideas that help define us. This familiarity leads us to believe we love them, and to think our souls are intrinsically bound to theirs. Perhaps we do and perhaps they are — in some sense, at least.

Even if the lives we know or imagine these people live are so wildly different to our own, we’re intrinsically connected to them — for just like us, they’re mere mortals. They were raised by mothers and fathers just like us, and they have pains and pleasures and desires and regrets just like us. In fact, just like us, they have all the attributes that make a human. When you strip away the fame, the fast cars, the sprawling mansions and the designer clothes, what differences remain? Very few.

With the death of our idols, we wave goodbye to fellow humans — and a small part of ourselves too, past or present. This forces us to sit back and take stock. Speaking of the actor whose death had the greatest impact on him, Twitter user Tom Cooke, says just that:

“I don’t know why, but the only celebrity death that ever really hit me was Brandon Lee. I was a lot younger then and a big fan of his movies, but his death was the only one that has ever made me stop what I was doing and just sit down and think.”

Over the years, I’ve experienced flashes of sadness for many a celeb as they bade farewell to this life. Yet the only one that had the same effect on me as Brandon Lee had on Tom, the only one that truly took the wind out of my sails, was funnyman Robin Williams.

When the troubled actor took his own life, I sat around for days in pyjamas, inanimate, moping, pondering my own mortality. I mourned a figure who represented my childhood, feeling thankful the moments of darkness I’ve encountered never led me down the same path of no return, and sparing thoughts for old friends whose demons sadly overcame them.

I suppose, then, when our favourite personalities depart this world, we grieve not only for them but for those we’ve already let go — our pain compounded by revisiting the death of loved ones who may have passed in similar ways. And we also grieve for ourselves, for our future selves that is, because our time here is but transient. One day, we too will be gone — and that frightens us.

But let the death of an idol, and the sorrow met in its wake, act as a lesson to us all — one that gifts us a renewed gratitude for life and a refreshed desire to honour all those dreams currently on the backburner. I certainly want to make sure that, when it’s my time, I can confidently call my life one well-lived and my achievements just as worthy as those of the greats.

So, to anyone whose spirits were dampened by the death of Andy Whitfield or any other household name, I’m sorry for your loss.

If you’re interested, head over to Netflix to watch Be Here Now (The Andy Whitfield Story). Lilibet Foster’s touching and inspiring 2015 documentary chronicles the star’s brave struggle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the meaning he discovered along the way.

London-based freelance journo (mainly film & TV), content writer & editor, ghostwriter, and blogger. Also currently studying to be a UX writer.

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