Thoughts On: Mourning Celebrities

Note: this is an old post, as will be clear by the references. However, it is a topic that has come back up with the recent passing of people like David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Prince, so I decided to post it again.


OK so Whitney Houston has died, I’m sure the entire world has heard by now. I still have the same opinion as before on how obsessive people seem to get when a celebrity dies, but this time I wanted to address the opposite extreme. I don’t know if it’s just the people that I know and hang out with or if it’s my entire generation that tends to be this cynical, but the overwhelming number of comments and statuses that I’ve seen on this go something like this:

Ya I heard, so sad,
like I know all those children that died from malnutrition or war or poverty or whatever,
but I mean,
I know she was addicted to all manner of things and recently, 

But still,

Now I don’t think that this argument makes any fucking sense, but I hear it all the time. Yes, Whitney Houston was just one person. As was Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger. Yes, it is true that there are millions suffering and dying around the world that we tend to care far less about, if at all.

But this argument doesn’t make sense because human emotion is not governed by numbers. You could also say that your mother, your sister, your cousin, your friend or your lover are just one person, one in the millions that die around the globe, so why the hell don’t you care about their death 1/1,000,000th of what you feel for the million children that died in the world? Of course you’re going to care more about someone you knew and cared about, regardless of why they died, because you have an emotional attachment to that person. It’s a bond, it’s the monkeysphere, it just matters to you more. So how does this translate to celebrities?

Just because you have probably never met them does not mean that a number of artists are not very important to most people’s lives. As a species we have this amazing artistic side, and there are some forms of art that touch us, move us. For most people, music is an integral part of development and finding yourself as you transition from childhood to adulthood, when you lock yourself in your room and it seems as though only this one song will help you through this terrible moment. It’s the music that you played full blast when you were furious, when it seemed that only that could calm you down. It is the song that someone who loved you dedicated to you, because it sung the words that they could not tell you themselves. It is the music that moved you to tears in your moments of loss. The people that brought us this music mean something to us, because their art means something to us. It was crucial to our development as young adults, and for many it continues to be a source of comfort, relaxation and enjoyment well into their old age.

To some like myself, actors in films can be just as important, if not more so. For kids especially, actors are often your first crushes. They are the protagonists of your very first fantasies, they are the subjects of your first lust when you are still unsure as to what it even is, and that fucking means something. That has emotional value to us. For me, as someone who always relied on films more than music for my development, Patrick Swayze was one of my first real crushes. When I watched dirty dancing after he died and knew that not only was he gone but that he died of a terrible painful illness, I was literally in tears. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t made movies in a while, or that dirty dancing is now dated and representative of a more melodramatic time of cinema, because that movie meant so much to me growing up that that is what I was grieving for. I wasn’t upset that someone famous had died, nor did it matter in the slightest that he wasn’t the greatest actor on the planet. I was grieving for what losing him meant to me, I was grieving for the loss that I felt. I know that sounds selfish, but that is a huge portion of what grief is. If you lose a friend, you grieve because you wont be able to talk to them anymore, see them anymore, you grieve for your loss.

Not all celebrities have this effect on people, and not everyone is affected by music or movies or novels or art the way others are, and I suppose they’ll never get it. I, for instance, was never influenced or fond of Michael Jackson, but I understood that he touched millions of people so I understood their grief even though his death didn’t affect me in the slightest. Whitney Houston definitely meant something to me, but she wasn’t so important to me that I felt devastated. I am objectively sad that she is gone, I am sorry that she will have no more music to give, my thoughts go out to her family, as it is never easy to lose someone you love especially to drugs, but I am not affected the way others were.

I suppose my point is that there is a healthy middle ground, with many people on either extreme. There always are going to be people that think that either you obsess over everything that is celebrity and venerate all that is famous as if they were demi-gods, or you’re a nihilistic party pooper that refuses to acknowledge any legitimate reason for being upset when an artist has died. I find myself in the middle, I think I have sufficiently explained how I got here and I wont be pressured into joining either extreme end.

Let me ask you, what artist influenced you most growing up? Which celebrity death do you think will most upset you?


  1. says

    Which celebrity death do you think will most upset you?

    My heroes – Feynman, Bowie, Prince, Eric Clapton, and David Attenborough.

    Off that list I struck Eric Clapton when I discovered he is a racist right wing asshole. Feynman had his ‘complexities’ too. I was never disillusioned about Hitchens because I never had illusions about him. But Attenborough … seems like a genuinely wonderful (literally!) person who has left the world a slightly better place than he found it. He’s old and failing, I’m afraid, though I wish he’d last decades more.

    Learning about the people I held up as heroes has pretty much cured me of having heroes. At my age I doubt I’ll be able to overcome the skepticism I’ve developed, enough to accept anyone new onto my list.

  2. kestrel says

    The celebrity that influenced me most when I was a child was Leonard Nimoy. I thought his character Mr. Spock was just terrific. To me, he made science really cool and OK to be involved in. I was sure sad when he died. Never met him of course but I felt like he made the world a better place.

  3. chris61 says

    I cannot imagine being upset by a celebrity death. I’m sorry for their friends and relatives but I don’t know these people.

  4. smrnda says

    I’m a big fan of the Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, and was pretty upset when I learned his wife (who collaborated with him) passed. I’ll definitely be upset when he goes, but I think part of that is since he’s sort of lower profile, less famous, it will seem more personal. It’s not like he’s going to die and be plastered all over magazines and everybody at the pub will be acknowledging him, so maybe it’s that it’ll feel more like I’m alone in being upset?

  5. tecolata says

    I was definitely upset when John Lennon was murdered. All the music I listen to, except classical, was in some way influenced by the Beatles. He marched for peace and proudly gave his son an Irish name. He married an Asian woman, an artist, older than he was and not by conventional standards “pretty”. He opposed racism and, while shitty on women earlier in life, evolved. He was only 40 and had so much more time to live that was taken from him, and the world. I realize millions die of hunger and preventable disease. I can try to change policies so this does not happen and still mourn John Lennon.

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