Every life tells a story, and when someone dies people would like to finish the story and try to make it a good one. And this happens especially when that death comes unexpectedly or prematurely.
Recently a whole generation of music fans grieved the loss of Chris Cornell. People of MY generation who are not as familiar with his work can relate a similar reaction to our feelings when Elvis or John Lennon died. As they had been in their time, Chris Cornell was a pioneer in the musical genres of grunge, alternative metal, heavy metal, alternative rock and hard rock.
Shortly after he died, someone tweeted, “I’ve never been so deeply affected by a musician’s death. But Chris Cornell was so much more to me. I guess that’s why.” A good friend of mine said, “My husband and I were devastated. I think part of our sadness is the music that was still to come. We will never get to experience that.”
In the last year alone, others may have had similar reactions to the death of musicians like Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Chuck Berry and many others. But you play golf, or ever walked in Arnie’s Army, the death of Arnold Palmer last year was devastating, as was the passing of Muhammad Ali to his many fans. If you love Star Wars (and who doesn’t?) then the death of Carrie Fisher was a disaster, as was the passing of her mother Debbie Reynolds to an earlier generation. Or movie stars like Sir Roger Moore, Gene Wilder, Robin Williams or Mary Tyler Moore to name but a few of the celebrities who touched our lives.
Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Over the years, many will remember similar reactions to famous people such as Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Princess Diane, John Glenn, along with a host of musicians, movie stars and TV personalities.
Each year it is estimated that an average of 73 well-known celebrities die. How are we to understand the intense emotions we feel when we learn of the deaths of people who we have probably never even met? Surely it is because of the influence they had on our lives; they represent a connection to our youth, the influences and experiences of earlier days, the memories of another time when the world looked different, more innocent and free.
The dawn of the television era in the 1950’s brought with it the illusion that we actually had a relationship with celebrities. They became a regular part of our lives, in the shows and movies we love, creating the music that defines moments in our lives, creating art and writing we appreciate. In other words, we feel like we know them, and allow ourselves to believe that they know us.
And now, in today’s modern culture, where we can find out what celebrities are doing 24/7, celebrity tabloids and social media feeds this type of one-sided relationship. The constant bombardment of every incident and detail of the celebrity’s life leads us to believe that they and their lives are a part of us. We become emotionally invested and attached to them, and the bond leads us to grieve more deeply when they die.
Possibly musical artists tend to elicit a stronger grief reaction because they have a deeply emotional impact on their fans. People like Glenn Miller for my Mum, Elvis and the Beatles for my generation, and now Chris Cornell or Prince often help shape our identity, self-image, attitudes and beliefs, not to mention fashion. We usually identify certain songs with key moments in our lives, such as the person we were dating at the time, where we were, or what we were experiencing when a certain song was popular.
Whoever the celebrity was, their death hits us hard because we had so many positive memories associated with their songs, their movies or their programmes. Or maybe that celebrity was “there” to comfort you, like binge watching Pink Panther movies through sleepless nights after a loss, or listening to Frank Sinatra to help through a painful time. Whatever it was, when a celebrity who in the past brought us comfort dies it can be especially painful.
But I also believe that such deaths often represent losing part of your past. As someone posted on Facebook, “I guess celebrity deaths make me feel like almost nothing is left from my childhood and my youth.” We grieve celebrities more deeply because we feel that they can no longer continue to contribute to our lives. We have lost out on their next creation. We may also feel we have lost that part of us that connected and associated with them, like our adolescence, innocence or some other significant time or phase in our life. And I suspect this is intensified as more and more celebrities of our generation leave us.
It’s easy to attack social media these days. Negatively, it spreads fake news and provides a place for cyberbullies to ply their hate. It also holds dangers, particularly when it saturates people with negative and depressing information like news and graphic details of a death. When the death occurs, you see it everywhere. You turn on the TV, listen to the radio, log on to social media, look at google news and you just can’t avoid it. Facts, speculation, details, analysis that borders on information overload. The danger is that this constant exposure can be overwhelming making it hard to get a break from the tough emotions.
But social media also lets us in on their last thoughts in a way we couldn’t in times past. Chris Cornell’s final tweet was re-tweeted and analysed by many an attempt to find meaning in that tragic event.
Social media has became a global gathering place, a digital gravestone where fans are laying virtual flowers, leaving tributes and commiserating with one another over what this celebrity meant to them.
If that is a meaningful ritual for a new generation, then so be it.