Why Celebrity Deaths Feel So Personal
I woke up to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death earlier this month, and I cried into my lap for 10 minutes. In the days that followed, I cried every day just a little bit, watching old clips of Parts Unknown, reading his best quotes, and tracking down a used copy of Kitchen Confidential. And then, I feel a little silly.
I’m not Bourdain’s family, or his friend, or his colleague. I’ve never even met him. I haven’t really earned any sadness over his death. So why am I so upset? Every celebrity death kicks off a round of tributes, of listening to their music or watching their movies all over again with new, ultra-appreciative eyes. There was that particularly brutal streak of 2016 where it felt like we were losing a rock god every day—Prince and David Bowie?!—and this month brought the terrible twin tragedies of Kate Spade and Bourdain’s suicides. You needn’t have bought her purses or watched his show to feel sad about their deaths. Two people you “knew” died.
Why do we feel so connected to people we don’t have relationships with? Well, because, in a sense, we do have relationships with them. “As consumers of popular culture, we paradoxically ‘know’ celebrities without actually knowing them,” says Trevor Blank, PhD, a communications professor at SUNY-Potsdam whose research focuses on celebrity and internet culture. They’re in our living rooms and on our phones. “As a result, when a celebrity dies, a relationship is severed, which can be painful. This is especially true in cases of tragic or unexpected loss, like a suicide or major scandal that redefines our perception of that individual.”
That “para-social” relationship, as it’s often referred to, is perfectly real, because household names like Spade and Bourdain were characters in so many people’s lives. “These people are a way of measuring our own life’s development,” says Moya Luckett, PhD, who teaches a course on celebrity culture at NYU. “People marked their own life with Bourdain’s television program. Or—I remember my first Kate Spade bag. A colleague bought one for me when I graduated from my PhD. She has an intersection with my biography. She’s present in my life.”
Then, suddenly, less present. Part of our grief comes from knowing them, yes. But, in the case of a suicide, a good chunk of grief comes from the sudden shock that these people would do this incredibly drastic thing. Our favorite celebrities are people we had a certain understanding of—with social media, a more intimate one than ever before—but an act that betrays that image reveals how little we actually knew about them. Thus we eat up story after grotesque story about their final days, their final social-media posts, the notes they may have left behind, and the method itself.
“It's natural for us to try and compartmentalize the various aspects of a celebrity's death in an analytical way as we try to cope with the shock of their loss,” says Blank. “We sometimes have to work to reconcile our subconscious guilt that we didn't recognize a person in crisis or acknowledge that we were powerless to provide some sort of comfort to that person, even if only symbolically through our fandom.” We couldn’t save Bourdain or Spade from their pain. We feel like we let them down.
And of course, even if we are well-versed in the tenacity of mental illness ourselves, it can still feel unimaginable that two people with such magnificently awesome lives were suffering to this degree. Celebrities “symbolically embody what many people aspire to be: financially successful and secure, loved and wanted, seemingly in control of their lives in a complex world,” Blank says. “The majority of people won't attain mass wealth and fame in their lifetimes, so to most people the life of a celebrity is akin to winning the lottery, as if they should be grateful for their opportunities and success and never fall into despair.”
It’s profoundly depressing, then, to learn that you could have a dream life such as Bourdain’s—he was shooting his award-winning TV show in France with his best friend when he died—and still not have the will to keep living it. “They have everything I would want to have,” says Soroya Bacchus, MD, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles. “They have it all, and it’s shocking when we realize they don’t. One in four people struggle with mental illness, but to learn that they’re struggling, too? And even they couldn’t find the resources?”
On a financial level, we think they should be more able to afford therapy than most of us; on a spiritual level, we think they had more reason to relish life than most of us. So where does that leave us?
Unfortunately, it leaves us depressed. In the days following the tragedies, headlines reminded us that the suicide rate in the U.S. is up 30 percent since 2000—and up 50 percent for women.
The stigma of mental illness erodes slowly, and friends and family of the deceased have made troubling claims that Bourdain didn’t follow medical advice for his depression and that Spade didn’t seek treatment lest it tarnish her happy brand. But it also seems that people have been moved to learn from their struggles—and pick up the phone, says Bacchus.
“This week, my office is flooded with people who want to come in and get evaluations. As a person suffering with depression or other illnesses, it’s like: ‘Shit, my life is horrible, too. I understand those feelings,’” says Bacchus. “You’re more aware of how you’ve been suffering, and now you realize this is a real issue.”
Calls to suicide hotlines were up a reported 65 percent the week after Bourdain and Spade's deaths. “I think it has helped to destigmatize serious depression and mental health issues, which affects one in four adults at some point in their lives,” says Blank, “and I think that's a good thing.” It is a dark final gift from these two talented people, the push to get help.