Why We’re So Shaken by Celebrity Deaths

Prince, George Michael, now Carrie Fisher — the loss we feel is profound, yet there's more going on than meets the eye

Over the last few days, I have received emails and tweets from all manner of people absolutely despondent over the passing of a particular celebrity in 2016. Some of these people would skip the funerals of their own family members, but they write eulogies and summon Twitterstorms commemorating the passing of  Prince, George Michael, and Carrie Fisher as if they were roommates.

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Why are we so emotionally affected by the passing of people we never met? Truth is, you have more contact with the man or woman behind the counter at the cleaner’s or the drug store than with any of these celebs. Yet the passing of these “real people” often goes unnoticed. (When was the last time you saw anybody post a memorial GIF of Sam the Pharmacist on Twitter?)

So I started thinking: Why do we get so upset — to the point of delivering bouquets to sites identified with the dead — when well-known strangers pass away? There are three explanations, I think:

1.) People are so starved for real human contact owing to the ubiquity of smartphones and virtual friends that they actually have a deeper emotional connection to actors, musicians, authors — people they’ve never met. It is not the person they are mourning, but the loss of the person’s art. Which brings me to the second explanation …

2.) Many times popular movies or songs mark a significant time in our lives. In our memories, they are associated with a relationship or a moment of glory in our past. So when the people responsible in some way for these iconic movies, songs, or books die, they take with them a part of our memories. The fact that millions of other people identify with these works in a personal way makes the “loss” seem more profound.

We mourn not only their absence but what might have been.

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3.) Just after Christmas, I had the chance to speak with a group of friends about the passing of George Michael and Prince. Some of my friends went into tearful explanations of what the passing of Prince or the Wham! lead singer meant to them. One woman thought the added death of Carrie Fisher was just too much to take. “This has been the most traumatic year of my life,” she wept.

Perhaps it was the fourth glass of Merlot talking. But she did seem genuinely moved and helped me understand her perspective. After leaving the dinner, I realized the third reason we take celebrity deaths so hard. Secretly, it isn’t their death we are disquieted by; it’s our own forthcoming death. Suddenly the icons of youth are gone and we are faced with the inescapable truth: We’re not so young anymore, and all of us eventually will confront the final journey from this life without red carpets, songs, or movie stars.

Related: Prince’s Hidden Painkiller Problem

It is always tragic when a person encounters an untimely or sudden death — and one prays that these individuals were ready. But for the most part — looking past the Arnold Palmers, Mother Angelicas, and Florence Hendersons, who reached a ripe age — the shocking deaths that occurred this year were mostly drug-related.

Prince and George Michael were both addicted to substances, and Carrie Fisher’s battles with sobriety no doubt weakened her body. For these figures, we mourn not only their absence but what might have been.

These talented people still had much to offer, more to give us. Their passing is a cautionary tale.

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As Frank Sinatra wrote to a young George Michael, who at 27 complained about the “tragedy of fame” in 1990: “Talent must not be wasted. Those who have it … must hug it, embrace it, nurture it and share it, lest it be taken away from you as fast as it was loaned to you.”

Here’s hoping that as we nurture the gifts given to us in 2017, we never forget all the Sam the Pharmacists — gone and present — who truly touch our lives in ways no star ever could.

Raymond Arroyo is editor-at-large of LifeZette. He is also the managing editor of EWTN News and the author of the “Will Wilder” series for young readers. “Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders” (Crown) will be published in March.  

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