Grieving Celebrities

On 31st August 1997, shortly after midnight local time, Lady Di was fatally injured in a car crash in Paris while fleeing the paparazzi.  It so happened that this was just a month after Sarada and I had started going to church again, and we arrived there to hear our vicar say that some of us would feel deeply affected and others wouldn’t, and the two of us were definitely in the latter category.  It was a strange few days, where there seemed to be largely fake and histrionic OTT “grieving” for someone people had never met or had much of a connection with.   We were rather surprised to find that another couple we knew were genuinely deeply upset about it and we just couldn’t empathise with where they were coming from.  Their connection was that they acknowledged that they were part of the LGBT community and Diana was well-known for touching people who were HIV positive at a time when the route and risks of infection were uncertain and she had had much involvement with people with AIDS.  Although a close friend of mine had died of AIDS a couple of years previously and I identified even back then as gender dysphoric, like many other gender dysphoric people at the time I didn’t consider myself to have any right to define myself as a member of the LGBT community and saw the interests of trans people and lesbians and gays to be utterly opposed.  Nonetheless it really mattered to me that my friend was probably dead and AIDS had been a major issue to me over the previous decade or so.  In fact I didn’t even have the closure of knowing he was dead but merely had to assume that he would either very soon die or actually had by that point.  Like Sarada, I still felt left  completely cold by the fact that she had died.  By contrast, thinking about my dead friend still upsets me even now, and that’s to be expected considering that I had a strong personal connection with him.  He was a close friend, we had lived together, we took each other’s advice seriously, confided in each other, went to parties together, were at university together and he was really special to me, and I’m still really gutted that he’s dead.  I think about all the things he wasn’t there to see or experience, everything he missed out on which happened later.  He didn’t, for example, get to see same-sex marriage enshrined in law and, forgetting the LGBT angle, he just didn’t get to live past the age of twenty-four, and that’s really crap and nothing can change it.

Lady Di though.  I saw her as the victim of a vacuous and trivial media and I felt sad for her, but in the end she was just another random person out there with whom I felt no personal connection, and I couldn’t understand why people were making such a big deal of her death.  It was like you couldn’t say anything or draw attention to something which seemed really artificial, like it was almost a major public festival or sports event which we could almost have fun joining in.  I also wondered how the people closest to her and therefore most personally affected by her passing felt about the way the general public had reacted.  It seemed completely inappropriate.

I imagine this is how a lot of people feel about those who are affected by the deaths of celebrities whom they admired recently, such as David Bowie, Prince, Ronnie Corbett and Victoria Wood.  I’m sure it seems quite fake to them and they too would contrast their deaths with people closer to the people who may or may not be grieving.

Of all the people named above, David Bowie is probably the one I feel most affected by.  Victoria Wood is also quite major.  I never felt much of a connection with Prince.  My sadness in such cases is mild.  I feel sympathy for the people close to them and sadness for the people themselves.  Bowie is a slightly different matter.  In his case, he represents a fairly major aspect of my life and in particular my youth, and the fact that he was a musician of whom I was a big fan means that I’ve looked into his lyrics and had by heartstrings tugged by his melodies, and I also see him as something of a genius.  He means something to me.  Even so, although I feel sad he’s gone, it’s not the same as losing a loved one or even a friend.

As usual, the people whose deaths most affected me, and about whom I feel I can honestly say I grieve, are not A list celebrities although they were pretty well-known.  This is like my tendency to back the loser, manifested for example in me being a Prefab Sprout fan when hardly anyone else is or ever was.

One of these people is Douglas Adams.  His death really affected me.  I still feel pretty upset from time to time that he’s no longer around, and that the major influence he had on our culture won’t continue.  He can’t be replaced, and whereas I’m sure his friend Stephen Fry is quite a bit more authentic in his grief than I am in mine, I don’t even question my right to grieve him, not as much as I grieve my friend who died of AIDS but still quite a bit.  Douglas Adams was important to me and quite a powerful influence, possibly too powerful.

The really off-the-scale bereavement in this respect for me, though, is Iain Banks.  Iain Banks is the only famous person whose death has reduced me to tears.  I met him once but I don’t think that’s why this happens.  I think the reason his death is so important to me is that his work is so emotionally real and often very raw, and because his politics are so close to mine.  In particular, he envisaged a technological and political utopia where death was optional and disease non-existent, so the fact that he died at a time when the world, as usual, was rapidly going the opposite way to utopia, as usual, of a disease which wouldn’t have existed if the human race had spent more time on preventing it rather than making nuisance calls about PPI or causing deaths of disabled people by taking away their money.  The details are less important.  I did have a strong emotional investment in Iain Banks’s work and he really mattered to me.  The scale of the loss is still way smaller than that of my friend, but it is still real.

I can relate to both sides.  I shared Sarada’s bafflement and utter lack of emotional involvement in Lady Di’s death and also the sense that that kind of grieving was ostentatious and artificial.  To some extent, I also share the sadness of Bowie’s passing with others, although I don’t feel it as strongly as the deaths of Adams and Banks.  I think these deaths affect us a lot when they represent the permanent loss of something the people concerned gave us which is significant to us and makes a connection.  This is particularly true of Douglas Adams, who manages to articulate the thoughts and feelings we all share in particularly unusual but also very familiar areas which were rarely or never expressed before.  For Iain Banks, the sadness is almost as palpable to me as the sadness I feel at the death of my friend.  Clearly that last loss is way more significant to me than that of anyone I couldn’t count as a friend, but it is still important and whereas the process of grieving someone we don’t know is not the same as grieving a friend or even an acquaintance, it is still meaningful and worthy of respect.  Anyone’s death diminishes us, and feeling a real sense of loss at the death of a celebrity does not diminish the reality of the considerably more intense bereavement of beloved friends and family.

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6 thoughts on “Grieving Celebrities

  1. I’ve written a poem about grieving which has a verse about Diana. On the day of her funeral my parents were driving up the motorway and they said that all the cars slowed down and drove in formation. The verse goes:
    And passing that rehearsal
    reminds me of Diana
    in a completer reversal
    of the M1’s usual manner
    we all touched fifty in formation
    to show the grieving of a nation

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  2. my school mate, colin, died by his own hand when i was 19. that deeply affected me, led me to spiritualism and the realisation that i had these abilities, and eventually president of hinckley church before i gave up cos they insisted on the lords prayer and talking about jeesus. It was a long lasting affect. Bowie, who i had never met, also deeply affected me. Not a day goes by since his death that i dont find myself thinking of him. His music, his androgeny, his search for something outside of and greater than humankind, all touched me. He was a genius. His music, especially latterly, can be challenging to listen to and appreciate, but when you finally get it, you FINALLY get it! As for Dianna, I was running a junior soccer team, and we had a morning match. I heard the news before leaving the house. It didnt affect me, or the boys, or their parents. But i must admit to feeling something on the day of her funeral, so many others affected, apparently, that i couldnt help but be impressed, but not grieve.

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    1. Bowie’s death did touch me but I think you are even more affected than I am. What you describe about Diana makes the interesting point that when a major event occurs (9/11 come to mind too), there can be a brief calm before the storm, as it were, before people react or have fallen into step. That’s what I make of your official experience. And yes, that kind of major personal tragedy often does seem to lead to a major spiritual breakthrough, which can go either way. It can mean loss of faith or it can bring people to it. In my case, my friend who killed herself a few years ago went missing and it was a month before her body was found. In the intervening period I and many other people kept thinking we’d seen her and that continues even now, which makes me think of Christ’s disciples seeing him after his crucifixion, so it kind of did both.

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      1. for me, my mum took me to a spiritualist church for the first time and we had a private meeting afterwards where the minister/medium held my hand and IMMEDIATELY I was aware of playing cards on my forhead with COLIN written on them…………it shook me, and even more so when the medium, Dorothy, told me that Colin was here and was telling her how we used to play cards most nights…………that lead me down the road to eventually being president at hinckley at church. It led me to realise that the things I had experienced were not madness but actually fairly normal. There were moment in between too, such as one of the old ladies at the Nuneation church, where I first regularly visited, suggesting that i come to their new year party as a woman and that her daughter had a couple of lovely dresses that should fit me !! wow……..didnt happen obviously……..but yes, grief affects diferently………as for Bowie, huge influence on my life, and will co ntinue to be, but not because i felt i knew him, that would be stupid, but because he is a huge mystery, his songs, when not just plain pop songs, were a mystery, were sci fi, were religious searchings, and how did he get to be better looking and more masculine as he got older. He also reached a phase where he was happy where before, when interviewed, he wuld be deadly serious…………he is and always will be a enigma and a bit of a role model. I just love how Major Tom kept appearing throught his works.

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  3. Bob Dylan’s music has meant a lot to me for my whole adult life; but, for me, he ceased to be interesting round about 1978-1981. We will always have the ‘good stuff’ so when the man goes – if he goes before me – I expect I’ll be vaguely pensive and nostalgic, but I’ll shed no tears (after all, I never met him).

    Ditto with Leonard Cohen, who actually means more to me than Dylan (whom he is senior to). I like virtually all his music and he’s still making good stuff; but it’s not his very best stuff, and we’ll always have that.

    I was very upset when John Lennon was murdered – but then I was only 13 and had just discovered the Beatles. I later realised that very little of Lennon’s post-Beatle music (barring the superb Plastic Ono Band album) was worth my attention. Although he died young, his best work was long behind him.

    The same with Pete Townshend, who has been artistically dead since the late seventies (or early eighties, if I’m feeling generous).

    It’s unlikely I’ll ever meet any of these people, so I can’t really claim to ‘care’ about them. I’ve no idea whether I’d like them or not if I did meet them (and if I did meet them, whom would I be meeting – the real person, or the ‘face that meets the fans’?). So, although it sounds cold, I’m not that bothered whether they’re alive or dead: their best work will live as long as there are ears to hear.

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    1. Oh God yeah, Leonard Cohen is brilliant! We seem to be the same age and I will never forget turning on the Today programme and hearing that dreadful news. It never ceases to amaze me how a few people in the States can be so blind to the devastating interpretation given to the Second Amendment which killed him and countless other innocent victims.

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