In 2016, grief has been the thing with feathers

By Tania Chakraborti

2016 was a catastrophic year for celebrity deaths. The list seems endless: David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, George Michael and a host of others torn unjustly from us. The last few days have been no exception, as Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were also snatched away, shocking the world. Fisher’s iconic role as Princess Leia in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise was one of the first empowering female parts of that era, making her a feminist role model for women everywhere. When I heard of her mother Debbie Reynolds’ passing only a day later, I could not help but cry. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was my childhood, and her films will always be a constant in my life.

But in reality, why should the death of an 84-year-old women I never knew personally elicit such an emotional response? It seems illogical. Yet this is the process of mourning that many undergo when an eminent person dies. After Bowie’s passing, 4.3 million messages by the 11th January were tweeted, with musicians like Madonna posting that she was ‘devastated’ as this ‘great Artist changed [her] life!’. Indeed, a musical genius had been cruelly robbed of his existence at the age of 69. So naturally, the world found solidarity in grief through social media.

But why do we care so much when musicians and actors die? Personally, it seems blatantly obvious. Just as Debbie Reynolds’ films shaped me, so did Bowie’s music form the narrative soundtrack to the lives of many. Scientifically, it is well-known that music triggers the brain activity affiliated with memory. Therefore, one will most likely remember where they were when they first heard Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars?’ and how it came to change their life. This is a fact.

But is it also a ‘fact’ that it is immoral to choose the ‘cold’ internet to showcase our grief? This is exactly what Telegraph writer Alex Proud argued following Prince’s death in April. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook are often used to pay homage, yet Proud insists that ‘many of these posts are nothing more than a mixture of narcissism…masquerading as grief.’ It is difficult to measure the exact motivations of online tweets, but Proud does highlight the perils of online activity generally in these situations.

There is certainly a danger that social media can be wielded as a hate weapon after the loss of a controversial public figure. The death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013 is an unfortunate example of this. Regardless of one’s political views, it cannot be denied that the barrage of insults unleashed online were appalling and distasteful, considering her passing only hours before.

2016 has taught us to be more sensitive. Public death has become an all too familiar experience this year, and social media usage has adapted accordingly. I therefore disagree with Alex Proud’s statements. Yes, it is true that before the internet was available, celebrity deaths were dealt with through alternative modes. Yet the insinuation that these methods were generally superior or more tasteful, must be refuted.

Long before Facebook, when Princess Diana died in 1997, more than 1 million flooded the streets during her funeral to pay their respects and roughly two billion watched the event on television worldwide. Elvis Presley’s premature death in August 1977, triggered a state of public mourning that lasted decades. Society expressed its heartache through buying his records more than ever: he gained five posthumous UK no 1s, making him the only artist to have ever achieved this. Incidentally, 1977 itself was a year that also saw unprecedented celebrity death: Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford and many others. Perhaps if the internet had existed then, these era-defining celebrities would have indeed been mourned differently. However, grief is no less genuine today simply because society has adapted with technology- such an argument seems untenable to me.

Grief and its treatment will always be a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, accessing an online community to connect with others in these shocking moments is undoubtedly comforting. Particularly in 2016, a year that has been the stage for political, economic and cultural uncertainty, social media is seen as a necessary coping mechanism. It is not the only channel for expressing anguish, but it is an increasingly conventional method used to heal.

Regardless of how we mourn these celebrities, Dr Deborah Carr’s comments in Psychology Today certainly resonate. She expresses that their ‘deaths teach us that everyone will die someday, and neither fame nor wealth nor talent shields us from this inevitability’. This statement is a reminder that we should be grateful for what we still have and the legacies left behind. George Michael’s generous donation to Childline, Carrie Fisher’s inspiration to mental health sufferers, Bowie’s fight for freedom during the Berlin Wall conflict – all these acts are worth celebrating. Their loss is an important reminder of the vital progress they enacted. Collective mourning is understandable, and I firmly believe in vocalising our respect towards those who have so momentously impacted our society.

Photograph: Jackie via Flickr and Creative Commons

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