Belfast Telegraph

Self-indulgent bouts of severe star mourning sickness really something we need to get over

Too many people use the death of celebrities to draw attention to themselves, writes Fionola Meredith

Have we reached peak mourning yet? It's difficult to see how the global expression of public grief following the deaths of celebrities in 2016 can get any more impassioned or extravagant. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and now, in the last days of the year, George Michael and Carrie Fisher.

Each passing produced a paroxysm of tearful tributes: mostly on social media, of course, though the mainstream media got caught up in the hullabaloo too.

And because there were quite a number of famous deaths this year, it all created a curious, cumulative snowball effect so that we were barely over one passing when the next one came along to prostrate us all over again. People started to get superstitious about it and began asking if there was something especially significant about 2016. Was this terrible year, punctuated by Brexit and the rise of Trump, cosmically pre-determined to slay world-renowned artists, actors and musicians?

Well, no, actually. It's just life.

Look, I'm not entirely cynical about these manifestations of public grief. I get it - up to a point. When Prince died I felt a pang of loss because his bewitching songs were all tangled up with my teenage years and the intensity of feeling that comes with that time. We're mourning ourselves, our own lost youth, when we mourn people like Prince or Bowie or Leonard Cohen: people we never knew, and now never will, but who felt familiar because their music was part of our lives.

But this is not personal loss. These celebrities did not belong to us, they belonged to the people who knew and loved them, and they are the ones with the full right to grieve and mourn for them. There is something self-indulgent and more than a little distasteful about some aspects of this very public heartache.

Too many people treat these deaths as an opportunity to bang on endlessly about themselves and their own lives. It's not real grief. The passing of a human being - albeit a very famous one - becomes just another chance to make it all about me, me, me. I've even seen people complaining that the succession of celebrity deaths has triggered personal trauma. Honestly, could you get any more childish and melodramatic?

And God help you if you confront the mob when it's in mourning mode. The DJ Andy Kershaw was widely excoriated when he claimed that George Michael wasn't actually a great musician, in his opinion, and urged people to keep a sense of proportion. He said: "Brace yourselves for the now-routine hysterical overreaction, and obligatory bogus sentimentality, which always - these days - follows the unfortunate premature deaths of these figures."

A little harsh and churlish, perhaps, given that the pop star had only just died - but there's more than a little truth in Kershaw's comment about the outpourings of sentiment.

It all started with the passing of Princess Diana, of course. That was the moment when the traditional stiff upper lip was replaced with a trembling lower one. 'Conspicuous compassion' - that's what the author Patrick West named the phenomenon in a book written over 10 years ago, but which now seems more relevant than ever.

West thinks that far from becoming more compassionate and caring as a society, we're actually getting more selfish and self-obsessed. He says that celebrity deaths "serve as an opportunity to (in)articulate our own unhappiness, and, by doing so in public, to form new social ties to replace those that have disappeared".

Now we don't just have conspicuous compassion, we have competitive compassion - "my grief at the loss of Prince/Bowie/George Michael (delete as applicable) is far worse than yours" - and even compulsory compassion, the shouting-down and shaming of anybody who refuses to join in the sobbing.

For an entirely different perspective, consider Raymond Briggs, the 82-year-old illustrator and author of Father Christmas, The Snowman and Fungus The Bogeyman. In a recent magazine article he spoke about his daily life. Briggs' partner of 42 years died last year and he visits her grave every day.

He lost his first wife in 1973, and his mother died young too. Later in the day Briggs visits his 91-year-old neighbour Ron, sometimes bringing him a sandwich. Ron says to him: "You don't have much luck with women, do you, Raymond?" And Briggs responds: "On we go."

On we go - just three simple words, simply spoken, but they speak of great stoicism and quiet endurance, trudging onwards despite life's terrible cruelties. To my mind, they have far more power than any amount of ostentatious public grief.

Belfast Telegraph


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