Is it OK to be sad when a celebrity dies?

Is it ever ok to put a lid on someone’s sadness?  If you saw someone crying would you comfort them, or tell them to ‘man-up’?  Do we need permission to feel sad?

As the news of David Bowie’s death broke, social media was flooded with affection, sadness, memories, favourite songs, videos, photos, letters, memorabilia, all contributing to the collective grief for the passing of a legendary artist.  Many of us felt a little bit like this:


But in one tiny corner of the internet lurked the grief-police; those who feel it necessary to criticise this ‘grief-bandwagon’ mentality, describing it as ‘mawkish’ and suggesting people ‘man-up.’

So let’s unpack that a bit.

We are social animals

Historically, we would come together as communities to mourn collectively and support one another.  Meghan O’Rourke writes more about that here.  Western culture moved towards private grieving early in the 20th Century, characteristic of the famous British ‘stiff upper lip.’  But do outpourings of emotion following celebrity deaths reveal an innate need to grieve together?  The go-to example of this is the response to Princess Diana’s death.  Social media didn’t exist then (how did we function?), but traditional media outlets certainly offered a platform for the collective grief of a nation.  So is it so surprising that twitter and facebook have become the new space where we gather together to mourn? Man alive, people share pictures of their dinner there!  Who’d have predicted we have an innate need to do that?

Whose grief is it anyway?

Yours!  Own your tears!

How can anyone possibly tell you how to feel?  Maybe it is grief-bandwaggon-ing.  So what?  Perhaps it is a necessary modern phenomenon, providing a legitimate outlet for our otherwise self-contained emotions.

Maybe when a celebrity passes away, we have permission to express those emotions we work hard at keeping tightly locked away.  Or maybe people (like me) felt genuinely sad about David Bowie’s death.  Lauren Laverne’s show on BBC6 Music was testament to the fact that many people were touched by his music and deeply moved by his passing. Responding to a listeners concerns about feeling so sad, Laverne argued; “It is personal when someone whose music has changed the way you see things dies.  The way they see the world, you take that on, it becomes part of you; they become part of you.  It’s a huge loss.” This post from Vox goes into more detail on the subject.

Perhaps you were completely unmoved by the news and don’t get what all the fuss is about.  Well that’s fine too.  Lot’s of celebrities die without me paying much attention.  But as Sean Faye wrote this week, “To sneer arrogantly at grief as a failure of social elegance – or worse, to dismiss it as a delusion or lie – is as cruel as it is hypocritical, given that grief will find us all at some stage.”

We have a big problem with stigma around mental health in the UK

Suicide is the leading cause of death in 20-34 year olds (Office for National Statistics, 2015), yet we still struggle to talk about all things emotional.  The Time to Change campaign was launched last year to tackle the stigma associated with mental health, and to put an end to the resulting discrimination.  Now, I’m not suggesting that grieving for David Bowie is evidence of a mental health problem, nor can it be compared with the daily challenges faced by those with mental illness.  But if we can’t even allow people to express their sorrow at a celebrity’s  passing, well, we’ve clearly got a long way to go.

Be polite

In the ensuing debate around ‘grief-police’, someone posted that twitter was a bit like being at home with the windows open, having a friendly conversation with the world. Occasionally, someone walks past and shouts something offensive, impolite or just not to your liking.  In that instance, the best thing to do is simply close the window.  Surely those who are offended by public displays of grief could just dip out of twitter for a while?

Writing for The Pool, Sali Hughes had this to say: “There are millions like me, who in losing an artist, feel as though they’ve lost an entire world. You absolutely don’t have to understand that, but you really should respect that”.  In The Art of Social Media, Guy Kawasaki and Peg Fitzpatrick quote the film Bambi: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” And last but not least, in How To Be A Woman, lifelong Bowie fan Caitlin Moran offers this pearl of wisdom: “Being polite is possibly the greatest daily contribution everyone can make to life on earth.”

So, from life on earth to Life on Mars.  And in the words of long time Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, “For now, it is appropriate to cry.

Via YouTube

©Jo Higman



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