It’s tempting to dismiss all of the seemingly genuine “I Will Always Love You” emotions gushing out on Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and via public memorials as evidence of the excessive emphasis our culture places on celebrity. That sentiment may have been magnified, perhaps, after watching some TV outlets follow the hearse carrying Houston’s coffin in a manner reminiscent of the aerial shots that tracked O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco.
It also may be magnified by the predictable way that we now process the deaths of public figures in the digital era. At this point, we can practically pinpoint the Five Stages of Grieving for the Famous.
1. Confirm the death via social networks and news outlets.
2. Express shock and sorrow via Twitter and/or Facebook.
3. Wallow in nostalgia in a way that inevitably leads to impulsive iTunes or Amazon.com purchases of said celebrity’s work.
4. Figure out which televised events will pay tribute to the celebrity, then tune in and comment on them online.
5. Read numerous stories that imply what caused the death; once a cause is officially determined, note the information in a status update and add that it’s tragic that we keep losing talented people too soon.
Yet, as predictable as this has become, one should not dismiss how personally we take the deaths of public figures. That’s because, in a way, these losses are personal.
When significant pop cultural figures die, we are immediately reminded of how their music helped us through high school break-ups, or how their television shows kept us company during our latchkey-kid childhoods, or how their movies made us dream of worlds that class field trips simply could not conjure. Their achievements have woven their way so fully into our memories that we can’t think of their work without reflecting on our pasts.
But celebrity death also can bring something else: catharsis.
“Sometimes what will happen is that when others are grieving a famous person, they may actually be grieving a more intensely personal loss,” says Carla Sofka, an associate professor at New York’s Siena College and president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. “And the famous person gives them a more socially acceptable way to express their sadness.”
Sofka says the death of a famous person can act as a trigger, forcing people to revisit feelings that the loss of a loved one brought on years before.
“I see absolutely nothing wrong with it,” she adds. “Sometimes I don’t think you can stop it. I think what I get concerned about are folks who invalidate people’s feelings or reactions without taking the time to understand why they might be there. People in our society tend not to be very patient or tolerant with somebody else’s grief. They’ll say, ‘You didn’t know this person, you have no right to be sad,’ when actually, they do.”
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that grieving is a messy, intense and lengthy process. Sometimes it may take the death of a Whitney Houston to remind us that we still have work to do: both to confront our own, private pain and to be more sensitive toward those who carry their sorrow more quietly, far away from spotlights.