Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Grieving the Loss of Iconic Figures

Time to pull out something from the archives - I'm reaching way back to July, 2007 where we discussed Grieving the Loss of Fictional Characters. Remember that one? It was the one where we talked about the sad feelings people were having over the ending of the Harry Potter series. I ended that posting with the quote from USA Today, saying "“It’s not any more of a pretend emotion to mourn a fictional character than to mourn a princess you never met whose subject you were not.” - referring to the death of Princess Diana.

Which brings us to today, where the last couple of weeks have delivered the news of some celebrity's death and we find ourselves mourning the loss of these icons. Why? We weren't related to them. We probably have never met them. To mourn the loss of someone, isn't it necessary to have a connection with them? What if it were an emotional connection? Ahhhhh, now we're talking!

Iconic figures are ripe for emotional connections. We become emotionally connected through no fault of our own. It's brilliant marketing and it's how they become famous. They attach themselves to a product, enhance their incredible talents and features, and learn to speak to us on a deeper level so that we buy into whatever they are selling - an album, a television program, a laundry detergent - whatever.

These connections are made because of a variety of reasons: we identify with them, we want to be like them, we want to be friends with them, we want to marry them. Yes, I said "marry them." Sigh! Time for self-disclosure. When I was a budding teenager, I was "In Love" with Elton John. All those wonderful songs he sang - he sang them for me. Not for you - ME! I was convinced that if I planned hard enough and got to meet him, he would realize that we were meant to be together. I even slept with his picture on my pillow and kissed him good-night every evening. Now, imagine if Elton had died during that time - the grief that I would be feeling would be experienced as a significant loss. As the years have passed and I have grown (I would have said matured, but I know the flack I would receive), that emotional connection has changed from a love struck teenager entrenched in fantasy, to a whimsical remembering of a time that once was. If Elton were to die now, I would definitely feel sadness, but not the deep grieving I would have experienced in the past.

So when we hear the news of David Carradine, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays, Karl Malden, and Michael Jackson, we see and hear many differing expressions of sadness and grief. We see people in different stages of their lives, having differing emotional connections to these icons, for many different reasons. We may not always understand why someone is showing such a depth of feeling for a celebrity, but it's not for us to understand. It's not for us to judge. They have a different emotional connection to that celebrity than we do.

What we can do is support the person in any way that we can. Let them talk about why that celebrity was so important to them. Let them share why they were so connected to that person. This is a form of Life Review and Reminiscence and is a great way to help go through the grief process. It's our way of trying to make sense of what just happened, make peace with it and honor their life and memory. It may even be helpful to be a part of the rituals that occur when an event like this happens. Go to the place where the celebrity lived, join the fans that are mourning and will understand the grief that you are feeling. Leave a flower, or a note, at the designated memorial site. Attend the viewing, even if it means that you are standing in line for hours just to do so - it's a form of pilgrimage which gives meaning to the act.

It seems fitting to pull something out of the same archived article to end this post. I had opened the article with the quote from USA Today, saying "Fans' teary eyes are all on 'Potter'." We can change that to say, "This week, fans' teary eyes are all on (insert favorite iconic figure who recently died here). In so doing, we can honor our emotions, not judge others for their emotions, and remember why we were so emotionally connected to that person.

Please be gentle with yourself.


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