mourning David Bowie
Mental & Emotional Health

The Impact of Celebrity Loss

Even back in the Dark Ages (referring to the time before the Internet, social media, a 24-hour non-stop news cycle and electronics of all manner invaded our lives), news of a celebrity or a public figure’s death had the ability to bring life to a standstill, even if for only a brief moment in time:

February 3, 1959: Known as the Day the Music Died, the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in a plane crash were so tragically profound that in 1972, Don McClean immortalized the event in the song American Pie that went to #1 on the charts fully thirteen years after they died. McClean later revealed that, “Writing the first verse of the song exorcised long-running grief”.

August 16, 1977: Though the funeral service itself was considered “modest” at the time, Elvis Presley’s death resulted in hundreds of thousands of mourners turning out for his funeral procession, with thousands more lined up at Graceland to pay respects,30,000 of which were permitted inside for a public viewing.

December 8, 1980: The assassination of John Lennon immediately brought hundreds to the scene of his murder. Millions around the world held vigils, celebrations of life, sit-ins, sing-ins, and all manner of tributes to the late singer and peace activist. The Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon was created in an area of Central Park in New York City and was dedicated on what would have been Lennon’s 45th birthday, October 9, 1985. To this day, people visit from all over the world to pay respects, sing songs or quietly reflect.

August 31, 1997: Princess Diana’s life was tragically cut short when she was killed in a horrific automobile accident. The international and very public outpouring of grief was unprecedented. It is estimated that between ten and fifteen tons of flowers were laid at various locations in Great Britain in tribute to the “People’s Princess”.

Our societal and cultural history is postmarked with the deaths of beloved celebrities, personalities, public figures, and talents from all manner of platform. When we as a society lose a person of notoriety, we generally pause, listen to the news and feel a measure of sadness for ourselves and sympathy for the loved ones left behind. However, when that public figure is someone whom we greatly admired or with whom we closely identified (for any number of reasons), we may also feel grief-stricken – as if the loss were intensely personal.

The reason? The loss is intensely personal.

There are those who may (and do) scoff at such an assertion. After all, how can a loss be personal when it likely involves someone whom we did not personally know? How can we experience grief when the person lost is technically a stranger?

The answer is simple.

Often, our public figures are living, breathing, “time stamps” on our lives and at different points in our lives. They move us. They influence us. They touch our hearts. They provoke thought and conversation – and with the advent of social media, perhaps as never before. Prior to avenues like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, our exposure to celebrities was essentially limited to what appeared in traditional media. Nowadays, we can see and actually interact with them in numerous social media forums, thereby “personalizing” what was once considered impersonal and distant.

It is a public figure’s contribution to our lives (however and whatever we perceive that contribution to be); their own particular time stamps left on our hearts and in our memories that we treasure. It is the loss of someone we admired and to whom we related that leaves us bereft and yes, in a measure of mourning – for the loss of the person, the loss of their contributions, and for the wonderful time stamps of days gone by for which they are responsible.

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I absolutely loved my childhood. I loved school, I loved my friends, I loved every single extracurricular activity in which I was involved (of which there were a considerable number). I loved it all. That said, I always felt a bit of an “outsider”; particularly while in junior high school. I didn’t “run” with the popular crowd. I didn’t garner a great deal of attention from boys and I was referred to as one of the “brainy” kids (a moniker that in those days was not necessarily a source of pride).

Then one day in 1972, I heard the song Space Oddity for the first time, introducing me to the music of David Bowie.

A combination of science fiction, fantasy and escapism, everything about Bowie was different. His look, his music, his demeanor. I was fascinated. However, it was Bowie’s overall message – be it in interviews or through his work – that resonated with me then and does to this day. Bowie actually made it okay to be different. It was okay to embrace whomever and whatever you were and wanted to be. It was okay to stand apart, even if standing apart meant periodically standing alone. It helped me learn an important life lesson, one that continues to this day. Just do you. Be who you are. And if being who you are makes you “different” (or a “weirdo” or a “geek”), that’s okay too.

On January 10, 2016, David Bowie died and along with many millions, I was deeply saddened. His was one of many “time stamps” on my heart, and that stamp will always remain.

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Our current year is one of tremendous loss across numerous communities. Glenn Frey, Alan Rickman, Lenny Kilmister, Maurice White, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, Prince, Patty Duke, Gary Shandling, Harper Lee, Morley Safe … the list is sadly long. The tributes (both public and private) are many and the reaction on social media overwhelming. Unfortunately, overwhelming response generally also invites overwhelming insensitivity.

Katie** recalls how she felt when the news broke of Annette Funicello’s death in 2013 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. Says Katie, “When I heard that Annette died, I felt clobbered. I was just so sad and I cried and cried. Certain people made some very rude comments to me – why I was crying over someone I didn’t know? What was the big deal? What they didn’t realize is that for me, Annette Funicello was a role model. She was beautiful and talented and someone I looked up to as a child. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know her. She made a big difference in my life for my own reasons.”  

When Prince recently passed away, Brittany (among millions of others) changed her profile picture on her social media to a picture of Prince with a purple veneer over it. She received a number of insensitive comments in response to the changes, most of which again observed that since she did not know Prince personally, she was being “overdramatic” in her feelings and her reaction. Brittany shares, “I didn’t know any of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris either [November, 2015] but no one gave me a hard time when I changed my picture to the French flag. Why is it so terrible to show my feelings now? I’m not being overdramatic. I feel how I feel and that’s the bottom line.”

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There are those who would indeed argue that while sadness after a public figure passes is understandable, grieving, mourning and public displays are not. That is perfectly fine – if that train of thought is what works for them. They do not get to insinuate their train of thought onto you. You must honor whatever and however you are feeling in the ways that you see fit. Relive and wrap yourself in your memories, your own “time stamps” that those you may not have personally known have nevertheless left on your heart.

After David Bowie’s death was announced, several local radio stations played his music continuously throughout the night. I poured myself a glass of wine and listened for several hours with tears, smiles, and gratitude … for the work, for learning and living the lesson of daring to be different and for one of many “time stamps” that brings to mind a twelve year old girl – along with the reminder that being different is very much okay.

“I feel how I feel”.

 That really says it all.

**Name changed in the interest of privacy

Bracketed additions are for clarification purposes

 Carole Brody Fleet is the award-winning author of the #1 ranked new release in its genre, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Women…” (Viva Editions). She is also the author of “Happily EVEN After… “(Viva Editions); winner of the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award, one of the top national awards in publishing; as well as the critically praised, national bestseller, “Widows Wear Stilettos…” (New Horizon Press). A contributor to the iconic Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, Ms. Fleet regularly appears as a media expert on numerous television and radio programs nationally and internationally; as well as in national and international print media. To learn more, please visit www.carolefleetspeaker.com and www.widowswearstilettos.com