Tuesday 11 December 2018

Comment: If you spent 2016 grieving over dead celebrities, you'd better get used to it - here's how it could be the new normal

A host of top stars died this year - but that could well be the new normal

Among the celebrities to die this year were Prince Picture: Reuters
Among the celebrities to die this year were Prince Picture: Reuters

Ed Power

The outpouring of grief following the death of George Michael on Christmas Day was extraordinary. On December 25, many of us went from cursing the ever-presence of Wham! on Christmas playlists to mourning a genius taken before his time. One moment Michael was the cheesy chap flinging snowballs in the 'Last Christmas' video. The next he was an icon snatched from us at a tragically young age.

A similar process took place when Carrie Fisher suffered what would prove a fatal seizure on a flight to Los Angeles on December 23. Across the world, people who had barely given a moment's consideration to the 'Star Wars' actress were struck down with genuine sadness - the ache intensified when Fisher's 84-year-old mother, Debbie Reynolds, died not 24 hours after her daughter.

These deaths were a suitably grisly sign-off to a year in which the reaper fixed his bony gaze on the A-list. It wasn't celebrity deaths alone that have led the 12 months just past to be lamented as the "worst ever". Brexit threatens European stability. The election of Donald Trump as US president has left us staring into a dystopian void.

'Batman v Superman' and 'Suicide Squad' were among the year's biggest movies. Wherever you turned, the outlook was apocalyptic.

Among the celebrities to die this year were David Bowie Picture: Getty
Among the celebrities to die this year were David Bowie Picture: Getty

Yet far more shocking to a considerable chunk of the population has been what was tantamount to an extinction event among celebs of a certain vintage. From David Bowie's passing on January 10 to the deaths over Christmas of Michael, Fisher and Reynolds, the super famous have been shuffling into the beyond at a chilling clip. Add to the list Prince, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen… and countless others, and the idea 2016 was in some way cursed indeed begins to seem plausible.

The pain felt at the passing of these icons was widespread and often heartfelt. We sobbed at news that Bowie had been claimed by cancer, broke out in the wrong sort of goosebumps on hearing of Cohen's death, and felt a Christmas chill as word broke that Michael had suffered a suspected cardiac arrest in his sleep.

"When a favourite artist of ours passes, we can experience grief and shock as if it were a close friend - even though we likely never met this person," said psychotherapist Tom Evans.

"That is because of the attachment and influence they've had at an important period in our life."

In the case of musicians such as Bowie and Michael, the bond can be especially strong.

"In our lifetimes, our teenage years and into our 20s are deeply emotional, turbulent and formative," said Mr Evans.

"During those years, music generally plays a therapeutic role. We will listen to songs that resonate with those feelings that reflect our mood. We can find ourselves listening to the same piece of music over and over again - because it assists in processing the emotions we are experiencing at the time.

"Music can help us verbalise feelings. This is deeply therapeutic. It's been said music is what emotions sound like. We will often form an attachment with the artist who best 'gets' what we are going through. George Michael did that so well."

Among the celebrities to die this year were George Michael Picture: PA
Among the celebrities to die this year were George Michael Picture: PA

Whether 2016 is an aberration in terms of the numbers of celebrities lost is a trickier matter. Without question, the body count is much increased - though not perhaps at the rate commonly assumed.

A 'Daily Telegraph' tally of culture stars lost in 2016 stands at 162. This compares with 124 in 2015 - a substantial increase yet hardly a rise of bubonic plague levels. Still there is an upward tick and one that is easily explained. The 1960s and 1970s marked an explosion in those qualifying as "famous" (previously celebrity was really a euphemism for movie star).

Now, with the baby boomer generation slouching into old age, the numbers falling away is reaching a critical mass.

None of us, it is true, are getting any younger - yet the onrush of years is especially acute for those whose celebrity was minted decades ago. Far from a one-off, 2016 may just be the start as a generation of rockers and screen idols confront mortality.

"People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die," BBC obituary editor Nick Serpell said in April, as it became apparent this was going to be a year to forget for fans of rock stars and actors of a certain age.

There are also more famous people than there used to be, he explained. "In my father or grandfather's generation, the only famous people really were from cinema - there was no television. Then, if anybody wasn't on TV, they weren't famous."

Another factor is that rock stars and famous actors didn't always prioritise their physical wellbeing. Bowie, by his own admission, spent most of the mid-1970s in a cocaine haze and later struggled with alcoholism. Prince was addicted to painkillers; George Michael was said to have spiralled into heroin use in his final years.

Such individuals became famous, in part, because of their epic, extravagant lifestyles - but it was those very lifestyles that may have contributed to their relatively premature demise. They did not live fast and die young - but they certainly spent much of their young adulthood with the pedal to the floor.

A more uncomfortable issue is whether it is healthy to grieve for a celebrity as we would for someone close to us.

There have been mutterings that the tears shed this week for Michael and Fisher are an indication of society's runaway obsession with fame.

Experts have a more nuanced reading. It is important that we are true to our emotions. If we felt a jolt upon learning of the death of a favourite singer or actor, what is to be gained bottling it up?

"Whether we like it or not, endings, death and grief are a matter of course for everybody," said Mr Evans. "As adults we need to remember that we are designed to cope with, and survive, grief. Our bodies are able for the grief journey, as nasty and painful as it might be.

"Some people try to avoid grief - by self-medicating or addictive behaviours. This is dysfunctional and will usually catch up with us….Grief is grief. All of our emotions deserve to be expressed and honoured."

Irish Independent

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