Celebrity Deaths: Shocking!
As appearing in the Huffington Post 12/30/16
As most of you are aware, there has been a spate of what the media has labeled “icon” deaths, referring mainly to people in the music and film industry who have died in the past year. Producing the most gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes has been the loss of Prince and George Michael. People created flower-filled memorials for them in cities around the world, women and men wept—sobbed—openly as they stood before makeshift altars, strangers held one another in palpable, overwhelming grief. What is this? How can it be explained that millions of people react with such angst to the death of someone they never met?
In an article in Huffington Post several months ago, David Kaplan, the chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, offered some of his explanations for the phenomenon.
One, he says, their music or their movies seem to set up a soundtrack for “special moments” in our lives. He said, “We grow up with these people…and we really get to know them. In a sense they become a member of our family…so when they die, it’s like an extended member of our family dies.”
Really? How do we know them? By watching them act out a role in a movie, deliver memorized lines on stage, play a song with a band? In most benign cases, they call that youthful fantasy and in some more serious cases that get to stand before the judge, in which determination has run amok over common sense, downright delusional.
Two, he added that icon deaths feel personal because they resonate at an archetypal level…that we mourn the death of a dream we will no longer be able to achieve.
Thanks to political correctness and the transmutation of truth for the sake of being “nice,” something has happened in the field of psychology that is far more disturbing than even the idol worship—the justification and rationalizing of what is in truth an unhealthy process. The profundity of grief these mourners are expressing has at its core more than Kaplan is willing to see or state. In our effort to see everything as “cool, man,” we can’t call an apple an apple or tell the difference between what is healthy and what is not. If someone sits down in a therapist’s office and calls an apple an orange, the therapist has been trained to acknowledge that for him or her, it feels like an orange and to take great care not to be perceived as judging the patient’s ideas. This is a slick and insidious version of the Emperor’s new clothes and does a tremendous disservice to the client.
Here are the things I think are at work.
One: Many, even when they have busy jobs and hectic lives, these icon grievers have at their core a profound loneliness and disturbing disconnectedness. They do not have the deeply satisfying relationships they want in their lives and their longing moves them in the direction of a fascination with or attachment to a media celebrity they can “feel” or “believe in” or “understand” or, worse, feel “understood by.” The media makes this easier to do every day with Facebook and Twitter, where one can count clicks as friends and thumbs up as relationships. Instead of encouraging their pursuit of the unattainable (really, how many of the celebrity worshippers ever even meet the object of their adorations?), we ought to understand better the nature of the real loss (real relationship) and encourage them in the pursuit of love, belonging, community, and friendship.
Two: Many are truly shocked by the death of people they did not consider mortal in any real way. Icons—literally meaning a representation of the divine—don’t die. They don’t age. They don’t get sick. They are ever-present, ever-giving, ever-perfect. But we forget, and are inspired by the media to forget, that icons are two-dimensional. They are not real. People are. And people—even celebrities—are flawed, frenzied, and share the same fatal dénouement that we do. That’s the truth and it is a hard one to accept when you’ve come to love a larger-than-life figure on a screen or stage.
Three, as Leslie Gold on Fox Radio said, “It’s about our own mortality.” I think she’s on to something. In this media-drenched culture, we value youth above all. More than health. More than wisdom. More than God. More than family. We behave as if the grim Reaper will never come tapping his bony fingers on our shoulders. And we certainly project these unconscious beliefs onto those we revere the most—celebrities. So, when they (inevitably) die, the illusion we have weaved so carefully also begins to fray. It can no longer support the weight of the truth: we’re going to die.
Kaplan touches on the truth at the end of the article: “We are social creatures, we are meant to be with other people…” Exactly. Just not with icons.