Always in our hearts, if not on our screens

Each year our generation gets older, it seems like more and more celebrities are dying. What we don’t expect is how connected we may feel and how their deaths may hit us. Jordyn Meade-Baxter takes a look at what causes us to mourn the loss of those who we never really knew.


I turned on my phone and looked at my Facebook news feed. It started off by  with few posts here and there ,but then it exploded with memorial posts for actor, Alan Rickman.

2016 has started off as a bad year in the world of entertainment, from the death of the legendary musician, David Bowie, and Eagles founder, Glen Frey.

However, Rickman’s death really stood out to me.

It’s funny though, I wasn’t really a Rickman fan, being as I never watched too many of his movies. I was one of the few of my generation who could never get into Harry Potter.

I could definitely see, though, how many of his fans I knew.

People were posting mainly Harry Potter references since he played Snape, one of the biggest characters of the franchise. There were wizards raising wands. There were quotes with his picture beside it. There were statuses by my friends talking about how much this man had impacted their lives. And there was one quote that finished the majority of the posts… “always.”

During my scrolling, I came across a status that sparked curiosity. Kayla Boyle, a long time family friend, said this was a first.

“So for the first time ever, I’m affected by a celebrity death. Alan Rickman was an amazingly talent man who I’ll remember always. You’ll always be Snape, Judge Turpin, Absolem and the voice of God in Dogma. And I’m sad to see you go, but glad you aren’t in any pain. I’ll remember you always,” said Boyle’s status.

So can we actually mourn celebrities?

The morning of Rickman’s death, it took Boyle hard. I had asked her to tell me about her reaction. What surprised me is that she remembered the date, right off the bat. She described her initial reaction as shock; she was upset.

“It hurt,” said Boyle, “I felt like I had lost someone who, in the back of my mind had become immortal.”

She said she was shocked to feel the loss of a stranger so strongly. She reflected on how she became so connected.

“I’m a huge Harry Potter fan,” said Boyle, “I had a love hate relationship with the character of Snape in the books.”

“He was well written but he never really clicked for me. He seemed selfish, even to the end. But Alan gave him depth and made me love and appreciated the character on a whole new level.”

Boyle said she was grieving. She now understood all of the people she said she picked on for mourning the loss of celebrities.

Now that I had heard this, I kind of started to understand that mourning celebrities was possible from a fan’s point of view. Though, a few questions remained.

All about meaning

I wanted to know if it was possible, from an academic stand point.

I decided to talk to St. Thomas gerontology professor, Gary Kenyon.  Kenyon teaches a course on death and dying.

He first described different ways people mourn in general. He described it as a personal experience. Health issues and stress, sadness and depression are common.

When it comes to celebrities, he was unsure if it changes.

“There are people that are celebrities who I’ve never met and I do get affected by some of them when they die,” said Kenyon.

He reflected on Philip Seymour-Hoffman and Robyn Williams. He followed their careers and said he felt sad.

Throughout our discussion, he seemed to have had more time to think of the idea of being affected by celebrities.

“Some would affect me,” said Kenyon. “I can connect with that. Not the same if someone really close to me dies.”

He did say we can feel the loss of people and places through what is meaningful to us. Kenyon said that it’s the special significance to us that we mourn.

“It’s because of our imagination and it is part of who we are as human beings. We connect with people, places and things that are not necessarily real.”

Kenyon said it is the meaning of these things that are the most important thing to us as humans. When it comes to celebrities, it’s because their work and our connection to their work is what we find meaningful.

“You allowed them in,” said Kenyon. “The meaning that they have for your life is still really important.”

Boyle had agreed. She said they become a part of our lives and shape us as a person. It’s this kind of meaning that allows us to grieve for them.

“The people we look up to and praise and the heroes we choose say a lot about us as a person and what we aspire to be and do in the world,” said Boyle.

Social mourning

One more question I had was whether the role of social media influences how we feel toward celebrities.

Jamie Gillies is a communications professor at St. Thomas. I asked him whether or not social media is a way that sensationalizes these peoples’ deaths.

“Perhaps, but I don’t think the impulse is any different than the mourning of public figures and celebrities before social media,” said Gillies.

He references the death of Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain and John F. Kennedy. He said the mass media sensationalized it the way social media does now.

Social media, he said, has changed the way we connect with celebrities, allowing us to feel closer.

“I think that the medium has changed with social media so that we can respond to the lives of public figures far more quickly,” said Gillies. “Social media has replaced the ‘water cooler’ talk and gossip of the past when using traditional media as the news source.”

It’s not social media that’s the trend, he said. It’s just that social media allows us to connect with trending events.

Possibility for preparation

Still, I wanted to know if there was a way to prepare for the death of a favourite actor or singer.

I’m deeply immersed in the world of music but I have yet to experience the death of a band member. I don’t know what it’s like to wake up and realize there isn’t going to be a next song, or next music video from the people I’ve connected to for years.

I asked Boyle if now that she has experienced it, if she thinks she can prepare for another.  She says there isn’t a way to prepare if we’re not around them leading up to it.

“Death happens so suddenly and in a world where we aren’t in direct contact with this person we can’t take the steps leading up to their death to prep for their departure.”

When it comes to celebrities, she says it’s harder to know that it may be coming.

“We don’t really know how their health is or what battles their facing and have faced,” said Boyle.

“When a loved one who is personally close to us is about to die we usually have a feeling before it’s going to happen. Sometimes not, but a lot of the time we know if their ill or if their days are numbered. We have time to prep, time to say goodbye, time to show them just what they mean to us. Sadly we never get to do that to people who don’t even realize they’ve changed our world.”