Celebrity Death and Social Media

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This week marked the death of Prince, one of the most loved and respected performers over the past several decades. This passing overshadowed another notable celebrity loss in former WWE superstar Chyna, with both joining a disconcertingly long list of celebrity deaths already in 2016. I’d name them, but there’s no way to cover them all without missing someone else of importance. The public sphere loses important people every year, but it has felt like this year has been particularly brutal in this respect. As with every celebrity passing, social media gets flooded with posts in memory of these performers despite the vast majority having never known them personally. It can be seen as merely another example of how technology engulfs everything we do, but in actuality it provides society with a valuable tool for growth.

I want you to first consider how our modern Western society tends to handle death to someone close. Typically a funeral and wake will be held, where family and friends who were close to the deceased come together to say goodbye. They might spend a couple of hours together, and then go their separate ways. Occasionally if someone has had to travel they might stay for an extra day or two and spend further time with others, but that’s about it. The rest of the mourning process is left very privately. However you might need to grieve, you do so, but it is rarely a communal thing.

To put it simply, we as a society don’t know how to mourn. Not because the above is wrong, and that another society has the scientifically proven better way, but rather because everybody mourns differently. Some people need space to be by themselves, while others need the company around them. Some choose to share stories and reminisce, while others find comfort in distractions. And it’s not something we like to talk about. We don’t prepare kids for the process until it already hits, and even if we did you’re never really ready when the time does come.

But this Western system tends to portray two forms which can be dangerous to our own perceptions. Firstly, grieving isn’t something you do for a short period of time and then just move on. The whole system, from the funeral and wake to allocated days off for ‘family loss’ suggests that it is a temporary thing we have to tick off in life. The reality is loss, especially loss that is near and dear to the heart, is a long term and often permanent thing. Secondly, mourning is generally considered to be a private thing. You use the wake for some measure of communal remembrance, but then you move on and deal with it on your own. When we spend time with someone going through this period, the thought is to ‘distract’ them from their pain, rather than support them through it.

The mourning of celebrities on social media however arguably helps to buck those trends and notions. When a death of an esteemed performer hits hard, we can collectively mourn through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The space is used to remember the good times, and the impact they have made on a person’s life.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at this act of celebrity mourning on social media. I mean, these people never met Prince! But it’s ignoring a fundamental aspect of how entertainment affects our society at large. Entertainers don’t just give us a brief jolt of happiness, they deeply affect and influence who we are. The reason why so many people felt distraught after Alan Rickman’s passing was because they have related to and learnt from him. We turn to these stars for respite during periods of depression, or to bring us joy alongside our friends. They might not be people we’ve met personally, but we’ve grown with and because of them all the same. Hearing of their passing can be as impactful as losing an uncle or friend, because of what they’ve done for us.

So it’s understandable that when a name like Prince or Bowie passes, people feel the need to mourn. To deny them of that necessity is to be ignorant to a person’s feelings or to misunderstand the impact of celebrity. Social media simply allows that process to be conducted among people, much as one would mourn during a wake. Memories can be shared, stories can be told, and respect can be shown. More and more in this modern world we use the online realm to conduct things we could previously only do in person – like work or socialise or fall in love – why should mourning be held in a different light?

To share of someone’s passing over Facebook is really no different than to share in their successes. When Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar, people (including myself) engaged in celebration and shared it online – just as we would do the same for a friend winning a local award. The internet grants us this opportunity, to express our feelings as we need to. Whether they be positive or negative.

If you feel the need or desire to mourn Prince’s death, do so. Nobody can tell you he didn’t impact your life in such a way as to necessitate the need for grieving. Celebrity is a powerful thing, and the more we engage with what they do, the more we will be affected by their success and loss. If you feel the need to do so privately, maybe by putting headphones on and listening to his work, then go for it. But if you need to mourn alongside friends, don’t be afraid to share a link on social media. I’ve seen and heard people complain about this kind of thing, and frankly it’s disrespectful. By doing so a person isn’t trying to direct attention to themselves through the celebrity’s death, just like selfies don’t automatically equate with narcissistic behaviour, it’s just the modern form of expression and working through this world. You don’t need to have known the person to be impacted by their loss. We also don’t look down on media outlets talking about it, or showing movies on their network in memory (and then making money off of the advertising) so why should we look down on someone who chooses to post a status in remembrance?

Death is a part of life, and because of that it’s important that we begin to understand how we personally mourn and grieve. My father passed away a few years ago, along with several other family members within a relatively short period of time. And to be honest I didn’t know in myself how I was meant to go through that period. I didn’t understand the whole wake process, I didn’t want to go and eat and laugh with people straight after burying my dad. But going through it I realised it was just because I would rather mourn privately, while others find more comfort in doing so publicly. So when we get hit by another shock celebrity passing, don’t be ashamed to grieve, and don’t be ashamed to do so over social media. There’s no shame in keeping the memories alive.

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