On Sunday, January 8, the telecast of the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards will feature, as it always does, a list of the notable celebrity deaths of the previous year.
This time, the list will be a long one. Among them are stars of earlier eras who reached ripe old ages and passed of natural causes, along with accidental demises, and a fair number of people who succumbed either directly to substance abuse and destructive lifestyles, or at least in part due to the aftereffects of said abuse and lifestyles.
A few took their own lives.
One published list for 2016 has almost 250 names, including David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Nancy Reagan, Joe Garagiola, Morley Safer, Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer, Florence Henderson, John Glenn, George Michael, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and the one-two punch of Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who died one day apart right after Christmas.
And, of course, on Easter Sunday, there was EWTN founder Mother Angelica.
Each death brings with it a spasm of public mourning, spreading across social media and generating print and online stories, and endless video reports.
All this, for people the mourners may have never met or even seen in person, or if they did, it was up on a stage or from the stands of a sporting event. And for many, their emotional outpouring for a deceased celebrity may exceed that for deaths of neighbors, co-workers or even family members.
Why do we mourn strangers with such intensity?
EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo had theories, including:
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.
Closer to home, Family Theater Productions’ Head of Production Father David Guffey, C.S.C., had some thoughts on the phenomenon.
Social media exacerbates it because there’s all sorts of possibilities to publicly express their sorrow. Social media is brilliant, and the perfect medium for it in some ways, because of who celebrities are. Many celebrities in our culture are so much a part of our cultural life, people think they know them. They’ve been in their living rooms; they’ve been with them throughout various points of their lives and their journey, whether it’s a movie or a presence in talk shows or other events. Some people feel quite close to celebrities, and, so, they’re reacting not to a stranger, but someone who feels like a person who’s part of their life.
But, of course, the celebrity really isn’t part of a fan’s life, so Father Guffey cautions:
I would say to people, “We need to put some things in perspective, and it’s okay to be sad about the death of someone but also to step back and say, it might be misplaced grief.” Or, the attention and the love and affection that are given to celebrities might be misplaced, if we aren’t offering the same kind of attention and affection and love to the people who are closest to us.
It’s a relatively few people who go overboard but I think there is peril. It’s very difficult to measure by just a post. You also have to wonder if people have close relationships in their own life, and do they have flesh and blood people that they love and spend time with and treasure and celebrate, or have they become part of a celebrity culture that lives life vicariously through sports celebrities or movie stars or television actors for whom they have no connection at all?
Asked what advice he would give to someone hit hard by a celebrity death, Father Guffey said:
I would try to ask them to pray about “What did this person mean to you? What is it that makes the loss of this person so sad? What role did they play in your life?” At that point, the celebrity has become not a real person, but a symbol of something bigger or greater. So, it’s worth looking at that, whether it’s a good thing.
Maybe people grieved Princess Diana because they grieved for the loss of someone that they perceived as good. Or it could be something more personal, like grieving the loss of youth because Carrie Fisher died at 60, and I’m 55 years old. But it’s
worth reflecting on what’s the underlying cause of the grief.
For a community to grieve the loss of a leader or the loss of a hero, that can be appropriate. It’s always possible to go overboard with grieving, and not living, or not putting things in perspective, because ultimately as Christians we should be rejoicing for them, or praying for their soul as they go before God.
In the show’s final episode, there was this exchange:
Col. Potter: Well, Francis, you’ve been a godsend.
Father Mulcahy: Look on the bright side: When they tell us to serve our time in Purgatory, we can say, “No thanks, I’ve done mine.”
And the name of the episode?
“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.”
Images: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons