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#RIPSridevi: Why we mourn for celebrity deaths

February 25, 2018 13:40 IST

Explained: The intimacy of the passing of public figures.


Sridevi: 1963-2018.


Most of India woke up today in shock and sorrow at the sudden demise of Bollywood icon Sridevi.

Mourning the death of a celebrity is in no way similar or as intense as mourning the passing of a family member or friend -- and there is no equating the two -- yet it is undeniable that the grief over the passing of a beloved celebrity is very real. And complicated.

We revisit their art -- watch an old song on YouTube, rewatch a favourite film, reread a beloved book.

We wonder why we are grieving about someone we never even met.

We revisit the memories they gave us.

We wonder if our grief ought to be so intense given that we didn't really know them and there is so much else in the world to grieve about.

So, why is it that we mourn the deaths of celebrities we didn't know personally?

Here's how psychotherapists and grief specialists explain it:


1: They are not strangers, but intimate strangers

Jacque Lynn Foltyn, a professor at National University in San Diego, explained it to CBS, 'When these people die, we reflect on our own lives and we feel a sense of loss because they have been in our lives, many times, for decades and we followed… their maturing, we followed their successes. People know more about celebrity lives, and then deaths, than they know about their own neighbors. They are these intimate strangers.'

'I hate her for dying. I will always love her.'


2: They made a difference to our lives

After the passing of musician David Bowie in 2016, Twitter user @ElusiveJ put the grief in perspective with one tweet, 'Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met. We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.'

Scrolling down Facebook and Twitter feeds, where so many now find a community in their mourning, shows posts dedicated to or referencing different songs and films of Sridevi -- each of which meant something special to the person.

We each experience art differently, and the passing of an artist makes us re-examine how they touched us, even changed us.

David Kessler, a grief and healing specialist and best-selling author, told ATTN, 'We may have not known them, but they help us know ourselves. Their songs may help us know [ourselves], we may remember where we were when the first Star Wars came out or what it was like to see Carrie Fisher in the newer Star Wars, and they connect us to our youth. And help us know ourselves a little better.'

He also noted that it was perfectly acceptable to mourn on social media, likening it to a modern-day 'town square'.

'I am in shock. Can't stop crying.'


3: A bridge to our past

When artists like Sridevi die so young, they take with them a piece of our childhood or youth -- often the best times of a person's life.

According to Psychology Today, 'These moments of bittersweet nostalgia can be opportunities to assess what's working in our lives. A brief musical trip back to our adolescent or young-adult years may help us to figure out what we wanted for our lives when we were young, what we've achieved, and which dreams we've given up on.

'These thought exercises may help us identify what's important to us, and figure out ways to reintroduce some long-lost passions, goals, and dreams into our adult lives.


4: Grief that we can let ourselves feel

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, also examined this phenomenon.

Citing him in a column in Newsweek, psychotherapist Mark Vernon wrote, 'He detected a risk when we lose someone with whom we are intimately bound. The risk is that with those deaths, we lose too much... We can't mourn the loved one because that person was, in a way, the whole of life to us. The residue of that ache may linger for years.

'Then, someone famous dies. Suddenly, mourning becomes possible.

'The icon meant a lot but, unlike a parent or partner or child, was not half of us. And so it's a loss that can be felt. It precipitates an outpouring of grief -- the death of Diana comes to mind -- that is as much an unblocking of the deeper melancholia as it is sadness at the departure of the celebrity...

'It's nostalgia in a healing sense: an embrace of life in all its tricky fullness.'


5: A reminder of our own mortality

Auhtor Kathy Gottberg wrote in Smart Living 365 aster the death of actor-comedian Robin Williams, 'The surprise of unexpected death is always a reminder of how fleeting life can be. While most of us are fortunate that those close to us usually pass less frequently or as unexpectedly, in some ways such loss prepares us for when that time comes.'

What did Sridevi mean to you? Tell us.

Rediff Get Ahead Bureau in Mumbai
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