Decoding Grief

On April 29, 2020, a country of a billion citizens was jolted as the news of its beloved cine icon Irfan Khan losing his battle to cancer broke out. As social media posts and unending obituaries appeared, several people expressed an unnerving sense of despair and loss. Shirin Mehrotra, a food writer who was in solitary quarantine in London, revealed, “I was devastated. His death took away all the energy from my body. His honesty, compassion and zest for life reflected in his work. Even his open letter to the fans, in the face of death, seemed so positive, authentic, humble, and grounded. His departure broke me and made me feel hopeless.”

Soon after, news of the unfortunate demise of two other Bollywood stars, Rishi Kapoor and Sushant Singh, came rolling in, uniting people in disbelief, anguish, and horror. Public tragedies and celebrity deaths happen. When they do, we all feel sad. But as I heard Shirin, I realised that some people experience deep personal distress, with a part of their life changed forever. I opened a discussion with friends and colleagues to understand this further. What struck me was the spectrum of responses that came in. Some dismissed holding the death of a parent, spouse, or friend in the same mental space as that of a faraway athlete or a princess, as purely absurd. But for others, it was not as simple.

The anatomy of public grief

Dr. Kenneth J Doka’s extensive work and pioneering research in the field of grief and bereavement counselling may offer some clues on celebrity deaths and their impact on public psyche. In 1989, in a seminal literary piece titled Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow,  he coined a term called ‘disenfranchised grief’, making a case for mourners who might be deprived of catharsis because their grief isn’t socially sanctioned. Understanding disenfranchised grief could perhaps provide insight into why an individual might grieve for a celebrity, despite not receiving validation and support from others.

Preeti Nagraj, a grief counsellor based in Mysore recalls the time her elder sister cried endlessly when former PM Rajiv Gandhi was brutally assassinated. As a kid, she couldn’t understand why her sister would refuse to play with her because someone died in a faraway place. Years later, Nagraj seems to have found an answer: “Once the grief of a public person or celebrity with whom we have had no personal memories sets in, it brings a lot of pain, eroding all the enthusiasm we may have experienced with that person’s relatable persona. Sometimes it crosses the line and merges with a make-believe world inside us.”

Nagraj later confessed that she had been similarly rattled by Irfan’s death. Having lost her own sister to cancer, she hopes that if there is no cure to the patient’s ill health, the person can leave peacefully and as painlessly as possible. Putting Nagraj’s response in perspective, Nyana Sabharwal, the founder of We Hear You, a suicide bereavement support group, said, “Grief is not a simple emotion. When we mourn a loss, we are not just grieving for a person, but also our life stories, the personal meaning we attach to them, and shared human connections.”

With the onslaught of 24/7 media coverage and social media tributes following a celebrity death, some people are likely to be more triggered than others. Reported reactions vary from shock, fatigue, insomnia, anger, resentment, loss of appetite, etc. Having processed her own journey with grief Nagraj said, “Death, no matter how distant, can be very relative. Losing sleep or appetite is a psychosomatic response to that fear. And such expressions vary. Some may overeat or consume alcohol for the same purpose. We all feel we deserve better. We may not be greedy, but we are kids who didn’t get our time in this universe.”

In 2005, David Kessler and the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross co-authored a book titled On Grief and Grieving explaining the five stages of mourning – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that may further help us understand differing public reactions. A bereavement counsellor himself, Kessler wrote in a Facebook post dated 2016 that our grief over celebrity deaths is real. “We grieve them not because we know them, but because they help us know ourselves. Grief reflects a connection that has been lost. We grieve those we love; we grieve those we like, and we even grieve those we never met personally. All you need to feel is a connection.”  Echoing Kessler’s sentiment and reflecting on her own response to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, Dinsa Sachan, an aspiring screenplay writer from Delhi said, “Sushant’s death impacted me so much because I love Bollywood and plan to write for the industry someday. I am always curious about the modus operandi of the industry. His death opened another side of the story, by highlighting conversations around nepotism and vagaries of Bollywood life.”

Parasocial bonds

Viswajith ES, a media professional from Mumbai, said, “It was totally out of the blue. Usually, such news doesn’t elicit much reaction. But when Irfan died, I felt a definite sense of loss. In fact, it’s weird because I am not an avid fan. I liked him a lot but haven’t really seen all his movies. I think it’s because his roles as far as I remember, were very realistic. He made us feel like the characters were really one of us!”

Richard Harris, a professor of Psychology at Kansas State University, calls this affinity with celebrities a ‘parasocial bond,’ a one-sided relationship in which one person has invested their complete emotional energies, while the other side is completely unaware of their existence. It could be established with public figures including politicians and extended to gods or even spirits.  According to Harris, we tend to develop relationships with media characters, in a way similar to the ones we share with people in real life. However, the loss of a parasocial connection is distinct from the loss of a family member.  In a media statement dated 2012, he explains, “Many people have probably spent more time with the characters on ‘Friends’ than they have with most of their real-life friends. Of course, they haven’t interacted with them – it’s very one-sided. People can, if drama is particularly well-acted and written, identify with the characters. That’s a significant relationship. That becomes particularly acute often when a character dies or a famous person dies with whom you have such a relationship.”

This certainly feels true, especially with social media giving us direct access to the drawing rooms, private lives and daily actions of our famed stars. It is then very natural for a public death to feel even more impactful than someone dying in our own immediate circles.

The promise of immortality

For the most part of our collective existence so far, ancient cultures, philosophy schools and religions have tried to impress upon embracing memento mori and using our mortality as a compass to orient ourselves. However, this contradicts our inherent existential design that seeks meaning and longing for immortality. This preoccupation with immortality can be seen translating into our obsession with ‘celebrity culture,’ which demonstrates important realities of how we view celebrities as indestructible. Our relationships with celebrities don’t necessarily follow typically understood cultural constructs. Enamoured by their ‘larger than life’ image, we tend to look at them with rose-tinted glasses and hold them as an epitome of happiness, success, and invincibility. Sabharwal added, “By design, humans tend to look up at celebrities and admire their lifestyles. We create these perfect, fairy tale images around their lives without realising that at the end of the day, these public figures are human. When a celebrity dies, the realisation suddenly hits home, and we become conscious of our own mortality. If it can happen to them, it can happen to me.”

Don’t dismiss it

Sabharwal cautions against dismissing our feelings, as they are an indicator of what holds meaning for us. When asked how people affected by their favourite star dying can cope and process their pain, she offered, “Reducing consumption of daily news while journaling and remembering the person helps.” Honouring them by lighting a candle, watching your favourite movies, dancing to songs, compiling a list of their work can be therapeutic as well. Smriti Rana, Programmes Director at Pallium India feels that celebrities often symbolise our personal dreams, struggles, failures, hopes and aspirations, and perhaps represent the best of us. For friends and families looking to help a loved one cope better, she leaves me with a parting message, “Providing support and reframing conversations by examining a loved one’s personal emotions by being mindful of the meaning their favourite celebrity’s life and death held for them, can allow the grieving process to unfold naturally and allow them to heal in a way best suited for them.”

Deepika is a freelance writer based out of India, focusing extensively on health, lifestyle and travel. As a person with lived experience of depression,  she identifies herself as a passionate mental health advocate. She is currently pursuing her MA in Psychology and was recently awarded a 2020 fellowship for media reporting on mental health in India by Schizophrenia Research Foundation of India (SCARF).

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