mental health

Why Do Celebrity Deaths Affect Us So Much?

An expert explains why the passing of a famous person can feel so personal and painful.
15 June 2020, 10:00amUpdated on 15 June 2020, 10:13am
celebrity deaths anxiety
Photo courtesy of Anthony Tran / Unsplash

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

Last night, when my friend Vineeta Raman heard that Bollywood star Sushant Singh Rajput had been found dead in his room in Mumbai, she couldn’t help but cry uncontrollably for an hour. The news of his suicide instantly sent shockwaves through the country. But although Raman only knew Singh Rajput in the way we “know” actors through their films, she believes the grief she felt was similar to what she’s previously felt when close family and friends have passed away.

“My chest felt heavy,” she said. “I just felt defeated, and though my family was worried about why I was reacting the way I was, it just felt so impulsive and natural that I couldn’t control it.”

Grieving a celebrity’s death is nothing new. We see this every time a major icon passes away—with social media and news sites flooded with sentimental tributes, expressions of grief and shock, and celebrations of careers. When these deaths are untimely, these tributes are also often accompanied by conspiracy theories, bizarre what-ifs, and sometimes (as in the case of yesterday’s death), even “disturbing” photos of the deceased actor.

So why do we feel so attached to people we’ve never met, and so sad when they depart? Why does the death of a famous person affect us so profoundly? Why does the death of say, a debt-ridden farmer, not provoke the same level of grief? And with no real social support for such a type of grieving then, how do we take care of ourselves?

We brought all our questions to Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist, Hvovi Bhagwagar.

VICE: Why do we grieve a celebrity’s death? Is it to do with the media we consume that increases our feelings of connection and identification with our beloved celebrities?
Hvovi Bhagwagar: Yes, whenever a celebrity passes away, we often react to it the way we would to any other type of death—as if we really knew them. Grief is really very universal; we all grieve. When it comes to those whose movies we might’ve watched, songs we might’ve heard, or sporting careers we might’ve followed, it’s about the impact they’ve had on our lives. So, that grief is also very real.

We know celebrities to a large extent because we read about them, we connect with their characters, we connect to the traits they portray—whether it’s on the sportsfield or on screen. For example, if I were to face an exam but would be worried about failing it, my brain might bring up resources based on the people I’ve read about or seen to serve as markers. Often, at that challenging time, I would immediately connect with characters from movies, and think: “Oh, they faced this particular life challenge so well.” In that way, celebrities can serve as motivation for us. And when they depart, we often feel a sense of loss that is very real. In a sense, that also means they often represent the best parts of us.

Another factor is that our relationships with celebrities don’t necessarily follow typically understood measures of time and space. They seem immortal to us. Even if they die in a movie, our brain tells us, “No, they’re alive.” Sometimes, we see them across eras and so, we tend to believe that they’re always going to be around. So, when they pass away, we can’t connect to their deaths in reality because not only do we not know them personally but also because they seem so immortal. We don’t seem to connect to their deaths in the real world and because they seem immortal, the grief is even more astounding. It’s shocking and more difficult to accept.

The celebrity’s passing away also makes us question our own reason for living. It makes us ask where we ourselves are headed and whether we will reach our goals before we pass away ourselves—and that starts creating anxiety in us. Most people are not afraid of dying as much as they are of leaving behind people and dying without fulfilling their own dreams—so these incidents naturally make them anxious about their own days being numbered, and what they are doing in their own lives.

What can we do at such a time and how can we take care of ourselves?
We should do the same things we’d do when we feel grief of any nature, whether it is the loss of a close friend, family member, job, or any other thing that was very important to us. We will react the same way and we need the same kind of support that we would have reached for, be it friends or family. We need to take care of ourselves because celebrity suicides often come with so much media coverage. We need to limit our news consumption. We need to ensure we are taking in the right kind of information and do the same as we would when we feel any other kind of loss—be it writing down our feelings or speaking to friends who also share the same feelings as us.

Most importantly, we need to stay away from any news that is sensationalising or conjecturing, or that may depict graphic images of the story. We need to be very careful what we expose ourselves to, especially if we are grieving and experiencing the loss and the sadness.

What can we do if everyone around is talking about the celebrity death but it’s getting too much for us?
All of this sharing of information and photos on social media is extremely triggering for people who are anyway vulnerable. It is often quite insensitive too. In Sushant Singh Rajput’s case from yesterday, people were talking about sharing pictures of the actor’s body. That is extremely insensitive and a major violation of privacy. People have also been sharing his treatment plans, doctor reports, and conjecturing whether the act happened because he was depressed or because he was in financial troubles. All of these conjectures will worsen as time goes and make things much more difficult for us. Responsible reporting by media can actually bring down the suicide rates. But if irresponsible reporting is done, it can increase those very rates. So, we need to make sure we aren’t violating the rules of privacy and we need to be very responsible in what we too are forwarding on WhatsApp and our own social media handles.

Is there an element of gratification here where we want to read about the troubles of others as a form of pleasure rather than to actually grieve?
If you look at the way the human psyche operates, our brains are designed to solve problems. This is why we are attracted to more negative news—if you open the newspaper and see stories on both, someone receiving an award and a crime that has occurred, our brains will automatically gravitate towards the negative story. That’s because it’s constantly functioning in a problem solving mode, that of survival. When you watch a horror movie, you want to turn away but you also see yourself gravitate towards it because such content produces dopamine which is an addictive rush. And no one wants to give up a good feeling. Many people yesterday did not want to see the body of the actor but there were also those who did. That’s because of the dopamine rush we get when we watch such content. But it’s important to remember that while dopamine increases the rush, it doesn't satisfy you. It's not a happiness releasing chemical but just a temporary high. It’s not contentment you feel, which is something you might after talking to a family member about your grief. That is a much healthier way to deal with it than news reports that might be exciting in the short run but do not promote wellbeing in the long run.

What can people do if their friends and family can’t understand their grief over a famous person passing away, and belittle it?
Belittling may be their way of coping. Ignoring such people, and focusing on one’s own emotions is important. The goal is not to invalidate your grief, but rather to process your emotions in a healthy, constructive way.

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