Celebrity Deaths: Communally Curing Mourning Sickness

In which I argue that, contrary to popular belief, public mourning is good for us. Read why:

Celebrity deaths have always been a popular topic for discussion, but now more than ever do people seem to get somewhat obsessed by the phenomenon. It’s logical, right? Absolute legends are dying at what appears to be an ever increasing rate. Just when you thought that all the good ones were gone, you’re confronted with another one1. There are actually plenty of logical arguments as to why this seems to be happening that have nothing to do with the rise of the illuminati. The concept of celebrity is a reasonably young one. Famous people have access to a plethora of substances that are risky to say the least, and live a lifestyle that is not for the faint of heart, leading to mental and physical illnesses that us commoners can more often steer clear of. Add to that the collective hyperawareness of current affairs on a global scale (filtered by our preferred media sources, of course), and you are left with a whole lotta death.

There has been a lot of criticism on what has been horrifically labeled as “mourning sickness”2. This term signifies the collective outpouring of grief chiefly expressed on social media, which to many reeks of fakery. You thought these bitches were basic and now out of nowhere they care about one of your idols? Do they even know about that side project they did whilst in exile in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s? Or that film noir they did a soundtrack for in college? Maybe not. Here’s the thing though: you don’t get to claim celebrities for yourself. They exist in the public sphere and therefore their work is there for all to enjoy, and this Cooler Than Thou attitude is wholly uncalled for. I would like to argue that this mindset needs to be retired immediately, and substituted by one more optimistic about the matter.

tom petty

Granted, it is hard to see the positive side to public mourning, which is obviously a sad activity in itself. Yet the fact that people seek out a public space to address their sadness is actually commendable and healthy. It might be true that a public expression of bereavement is more about the mourner than the mourned, but this is true for all of its manifestations, public as well as private. Saying that this particular kind is disgusting, self-indulgent, or something typical of a certain generation/the fault of social media is incredibly shortsighted. We’re talking about some of the most private emotions: pain, heartache, sadness, and in return compassion and fellow feeling. Isn’t it fitting? Music has always given people the tools to express their emotions without actually using their own voice. You could say the public outpouring of grief is where it all comes full circle, the people voicing what’s in their hearts now that the artist no longer can. Music often becomes an extension of ourselves, creating a close (one-sided) bond between the listener and the creator. More than just being sad for an individual’s passing, public grief in this case is a mourning over the loss of a piece of ourselves.

Rather than a sickness, online outpourings of grief can be considered a sign that the times are a-changing3. Loneliness is more and more prevalent in modern (Western, metropolitan) society. The Age of Individualism has led us to falsely believe that we ought to go it alone, to carve out our unique little niche all by ourselves. This has caused an entire generation to develop a strange social incompetence, akin to that of a middle-aged man who’s failed to move out of his mother’s basement. The fear prevails that if we are anything but perfect, the world will drop us like yesterday’s newspaper. Yet there is hope, and a glimmer of it is visible in our far-from-flawless vocalisations of grief on the web.

More than just being sad for an individual’s passing, public grief […] is a mourning over the loss of a piece of ourselves

There is a tendency to consider everything tech-related, and especially social media, to be ruining humankind. Any move away from face-to-face interaction is supposedly making us less empathetic, more isolated. Whereas this might have been true in the early days of websites like MySpace and Facebook, when the novelty of it still sparked our curiosity, this excitement has now worn off and social media is ingrained in society, and we’re easily bored. As children of the digital age, we were taught a new skill and after years of study have it down pat. It is time for the teacher to become the student, because we’ve realised down the way that perfecting our digital image does not ultimately bring happiness.


Credit: Chris Barker

This doesn’t mean social media is useless. Leave it to the people to revolutionise the system in their favour. Even Mark Zuckerberg understand that our needs are changing, and he appears to be listening. If he is to follow through on his promise, Facebook will shift its focus and prioritise networks of actual people over sponsored content and the many media outlets hogging our timelines.

Ask yourself this: when posting a message stating your sadness at someone’s passing, what are you ultimately looking for? It is most likely not an attempt to seem cool for knowing someone’s work. More probable is that you are looking for a connection, to let other people know they’re not alone, that you too are affected. We might still be trapped in our isolated existence, living in a big city, too busy to have fun. Yet here is a small indication that we want to reach out and build communities again. That we’re ready to put our egos aside in return for a pint and some silly banter. Perhaps the likes of Patrick West don’t want to believe that a generation is capable of changing their ways. The skeptics that assume any pronouncement of genuine emotion on social media is nothing more than a selfish cry for attention will not be silenced any time soon. You know what? Leave them be. At the end of the day they will be sat at home shouting at their computer screens while we are at the pub singing along to the biggest hits of Bowie, Prince, and George Michael. Naturally, there was a Facebook event.


1. And you think to yourself: “Were they still alive?”

2. I have to refer to Patrick West’s Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004), though I’d rather not. Read it and weep.

3. In case you weren’t sure: Bob Dylan is, at the time of writing, still alive.

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