Why Do We Mourn Strangers and Celebs?

Dec 28, 2016 | Featured Posts by Holly Jahangiri, Kindness, Social Media, Vulnerability

2016 is probably NOT the worst year on record for “deaths of famous people.” Baby Boomers – the largest segment of the population – are of an age where the celebrities and older people who meant something special to us during our “formative years” are dying. They were older than we were, remember; it was inevitable. We thought they’d live forever, because they were larger than life and seemed – when we were young – to be just barely older than we were. Now, we’re facing our own mortality, too – or that of our own parents and grandparents – and we are fighting it tooth and nail. It didn’t seem quite real when we were children; it certainly wasn’t commonplace.
I still remember the day I learned that Louis Jourdan was already old – technically old enough to be my grandfather– after I’d just “met” him as a “handsome young man” in GiGi and felt my heart flutter.
To those who wonder why people mourn the deaths of celebrities and people they’ve never met, I can only offer theories:
First, as John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
This is why, though I didn’t exactly “mourn” bin Laden’s death, I felt sad – a bit deflated – to know that so many people could rejoice, celebrate, and dance on a man’s grave. Let’s not remember him as anything but the villain that he was; but let’s not be villains, ourselves, in our glee. He was some woman’s child – some mother’s precious baby boy – and there must have been a time when he was innocent, happy, and full of future promise. It’s the loss of all that which diminishes humanity, one villain at a time.
Second, as with any death but that of a child with a lifetime of unrealized potential and joys, we mourn our own losses. We’ll hear nothing new from the deceased, there will be no more art or music or words from their pen, no more movies in which they will bring a fictional character to life, no more grand, pioneering space adventures for them to share with us and we can only revisit them in memory. When so many die in a short time, it feels like “the end of an era.” 
Third, they meant something to us – something that is perhaps only symbolic and very personal, intertwined with memories that have almost nothing to do with them. “They sang the hit song that played in the background, the first time I kissed my husband,” or “That movie they were in was playing when my wife went into labor with our first child.” Maybe something they said or did inspired us to reach farther, try harder, or consider a career we hadn’t thought of before they made us think of it. In a way, they have become the shortcut that triggers those memories, and their death now becomes associated with the memories in some bittersweet way – reminding us that all things, good and bad, must naturally come to an end.
Fourth, there will always be people who use such occasions to bolster their own image as caring, emotional people. In bygone days, there were paid mourners – and the profession was not always vilified. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_mourning I think maybe it comes naturally to some, even now, and apparently paid mourning is still an active profession.
Fifth, there are people who yearn to be among the first to break the news or share the gossip. This, too, is a natural human tendency – after all, without new news to offer up, the conversation gets a little stale. Isn’t this the problem with our 24/7 news cycle? Always “time to market,” no time for thoughtful reflection, consideration, fact-checking, and asking, “Is this really something I need to share or talk about?”
But I do think the first through third points are the ones we should assume of people, until we can no longer give them benefit of the doubt. And no matter what triggers people’s emotions, we do well to remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, and no timetable for what’s “normal” or “acceptable” when it comes to being sad over a loss.
Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Carrie Fisher was younger than I am – and I have my first visit to a cardiologist arranged for Jan.

    Not the result of her death – my doctor has been nagging me for a year – but still a correlation of a sort: we’re all getting older.

    Which drives me crazy when I’m trying to write (my legacy!) and stupid stuff keeps interfering – such as being asked to make a phone call that could have waited. Just the interruption cost me far more than normal people, but if I give in and actually make the call, there, literally, goes today’s writing.

    Is it horrible to hope your visitors leave so you can get back to work? I will miss her more than I know how to say, but the slow leave-taking, and all the junk, is making it hard to take.

    ‘Twas ever so.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt recently posted…Prying the heart open and keeping it openMy Profile

    • HollyJahangiri

      I think that’s more a sign of being an introvert than anything else. It was a relief to realize that the key trait distinguishing “introvert” from “extrovert” is whether you get energy from social activity or it drains you. It’s not personal – it’s all social activity, whether you are loving it or not. So to say “I need some down time” or “alone time” is expressing a need like “I’m hungry” or “I’m thirsty” and not “I’m tired of your company.” It’s like being a little kid, and being able to admit that you’ve had enough amusement park fun for one day, or being able to stop eating candy before your teeth fall out.

      Good for you, making a proactive checkup with the cardiologist. I’ve had EKGs; I’m good. My BP is great (aside from “white coat syndrome” – I had to tell my doc I’d go test it myself after our visit, and I sent her cell phone pics to prove it wasn’t just good, but GREAT, after it was high in the office, anticipating bloodwork and a flu shot).

  2. Mitch Mitchell

    Overall I think they force us to try to come to grips with our own mortality, especially when they’re close to our age or are younger. We make connections with these people we’ve never met because they meant at least a little something in our lives.

    As for bin Laden… I gloried in his death almost as much as I did Hussein’s. Serial killers might have had mothers who loved them but all that proved is that a mother’s love is pretty forgiving. Most people get what they have coming to them, and if it’s the result of bad things you’ll never see me mourn for them… so long Dahmer. It might seem cruel but that’s the thought pattern of a military kid… and others.

    Still, I can’t wait for 2016 to be over…
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…The Year End Blog Post; So Glad This Year Is Over!My Profile

    • HollyJahangiri

      Don’t get me wrong: I don’t shed a tear for bin Ladin, only for the wasted life and the stain on the souls of those who truly REVELED in anyone’s death. I’m not sorry justice was meted out, but I haven’t forgotten the images from Fallujah, either – of little boys celebrating hanged, burning corpses. From their viewpoint, it was “justice.” From ours, it was “evil.” From mine, it was a darkness within them that will never leave. It’s one thing to execute someone or kill them in battle, but it’s quite another to sing and dance on a corpse.

  3. Corinne Rodrigues

    I’m with you on Bin Laden to the extent that at the end of the it’s a life wasted and some sterling leadership qualities put to evil use!

    I think a part of us always romanticizes the lives and consequently the death of celebrities. It’s like the excitement that surrounded the wedding of Princess Diana and the stunned feeling at her death.

    Now I may sound cynical, but with a few people their very public grief at the passing of a celebrity is a way to say ‘I’m so cool’! 😉
    Corinne Rodrigues recently posted…2017 Outdo Yourself Reading ChallengeMy Profile

    • HollyJahangiri

      I think, then, we’re in complete agreement (see points 4 and 5, above). I don’t know that it’s to say “I’m cool” so much as to be first with the breathless gossip, the “breaking news” – to grab, for a moment, the spotlight. Truly “cool” doesn’t need to be so grabby. 🙂

    • HollyJahangiri

      I think that you’re quite right, too, about this “romanticizing” of celebs – even the evil ones – and I think they become much more interesting when you glimpse them as ordinary human beings who had the right combination of talent, skill, timing, friends, ideas to propel them to fame and make them somehow significant in lives they might never touch directly. Fascinating. Think of bin Laden, not as an evil villain on a sat phone, directing terrorists – but picture him, at the end, hunted and afraid, an old confused-looking man in a blanket, watching TV. Picture Hitler, here, practicing his famous speeches – there’s a reason he was a good orator; he practiced. Show this to any member of Toastmasters, and they’ll probably be fascinated, horrified, and amused all at once. http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/hitler-rehearsing-speech-front-mirror-1925/

      It’s their humanness, that “there but by the grace of God, go I” or “what makes them so different from me?” quality that makes them worth remembering at all, I think.

      But then I imagine someone lacking in empathy (or afraid to explore it like this) recoiling in horror at the thought that they could possibly have anything in common with these these icons of sin and villainy. I think, deep down, it may be damaging to them to realize they could – they can’t possibly admit to it, so they are furious at the suggestion. They turn these people into monsters of mythic proportion rather than admit they, too, could be monsters on a smaller scale, given the right circumstances.

  4. Peter Wright

    I agree with Mitch that more than anything, the death of a celebrity close to our age or younger, reminds us of our own mortality. I am of the same generation as Alicia, Carrie Fisher was younger than my 66 years.

    Hearing of her death, I was grateful that I survived a heart attack when I was her age.

    For me, the news of a death of someone, famous or not, who I knew or knew of in my younger days, invokes a sort of melancholy for times in the past that seem in retrospect, far happier than they probably were.

    Hearing the false reports of Queen Elizabeth’s death yesterday, reminded me that as a young child, I had stood with my parents in the crowded London streets waving my little Union Jack to celebrate her coronation.
    Peter Wright recently posted…Optimism – the best Christmas gift of all.My Profile

    • HollyJahangiri

      Yes, and as we get older, there are more and more reminders. Some days, it’s okay; but I can no longer soothe myself with the idea that I have as many years ahead of me as behind me. (Not that I don’t still have MANY ahead – I just doubt I’ll live to be 107. It’s still in the realm of possibility, though!)

      I think you’re right about nostalgia; some of us do tend to remember the past as something sweeter than it was. I think I’m generally a happy, positive person. To me, the past is neither all good or all bad, any more than the present is, or than the future is likely to be. I think maybe, for people who are unhappy, the past seems comparatively easier or better – unless they suffered some WORSE trauma than whatever consumes them in the moment.

      The death hoaxes are the worst – seriously, why do people do that? Trolls.

  5. Mia

    I was having a similar conversation with some friends about this subject. No I’ve never met any of the celebrities that we lost this year but I was sad to hear of each person’s passing. I told people you can’t deny that music, TV, and movies haven’t had an impact on our lives in some way.
    I think the celebrity death I’m having the most hard time with is Carrie Fisher. I remember the day I first became aware of the Star Wars franchise. I was only 8 years old but I remember it like it was yesterday. I had never seen a character like Leia. She was a princess but not a pushover. I was hooked.
    This past year I was so excited about The Force Awakens and to see that she had gone from Princess to General.
    As a person, I thought she had a great sense of humor. Seeing her at celebrity roasts and on talk shows was awesome. So witty and intelligent. She guest starred on my favorite TV show (30 Rock). Her HBO special Wishful Drinking was hilarious. And she has at least one more novel that hasn’t been published. She’s someone I would have loved to have met and had a conversation with.
    Mia recently posted…F$@k 2016!My Profile


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