There is often an outpouring of grief when an admired or famous figure dies. But we are also presented with an explicit and often sobering reminder of the one thing that celebrities and the rest of us are guaranteed to share – that we too will also one day die.
Celebrities are something of a permanent fixture in our daily lives – it’s hard to walk past a newspaper stand or billboard without a familiar famous face returning your gaze.
Not only do the famous manage to evince a sense of permanent youth, but with the rise of social media we are also influenced by them much more directly than we used to be. This, of course, puts them in a powerful position but (we all know how the saying goes) with that power comes great responsibility.
The image of immortality projected by celebrities can easily rub off on us without us even realising, and it’s not difficult or unreasonable to start developing a sense of our own invincibility. So, what happens when one of these familiar faces suddenly permanently disappears from our eyes, screens and lives?
Not only is there a large outpouring of grief when an admired figure dies, but we are also presented with an explicit and often sobering reminder of the one thing that celebrities and the rest of us are guaranteed to share – we too will also one day die.
Last year we seemed to experience an unprecedented number of celebrity deaths, and the public appeared to rile against this, with expressions of grief and anger at the fact that so many big names were being “taken away” from us. But behind these outward shows of emotion, there was also a deeper and more uncomfortable truth which we were starting to realise we had to face.
Useful debates continue about the terminology we use in the discourse of death and dying (for more listen to our first podcast to hear a child bereavement expert speak about the importance of talking openly to children about death, loss and grief), but what was most interesting about observing the reactions to celebrity deaths is that it appeared to kick-start and encourage a national conversation around death and dying.
One particularly positive development was the realisation and recognition of the importance of talking about death before a direct confrontation with it forces us to. One admirable and inspiring example of this recognition was shown by Steve Hewlett, the BBC Radio 4 broadcaster who died of cancer in February 2017.
When Steve Hewlett found out that he had cancer, he decided to face it head on and began documenting his journey through regular interviews with his Radio 4 colleague, Eddie Mair.
In one interview Steve said, ‘I’ve made no secret of the fact I have cancer. I hope my experience will help other people talk about and deal with these kinds of things, that they’ll see elements of my experience in theirs.’
There are two important aspects to his statement: the fact that he was open about having cancer, and that he recognised that talking about it might help others who are experiencing something similar – be it someone who has cancer (or indeed another terminal illness) or a family member or friend going through it. Steve appeared to recognise the nature of death as a “taboo” in our society, and felt the need to redefine the norm.
On the day Steve died, Radio 4 put together a tribute, and instead of focusing on his many lifetime achievements, family or friends, they chose to play a selection of clips from the interviews he gave during his illness.
This took the listener through the various phases of his illness – ups, downs, hopes, disappointments – from beginning, to very close to the end. It is an extraordinary listening experience. Not only is it full of practical pieces of advice from diagnosis to stopping treatment, but it is also filled with emotional and rather philosophical insights into what it really means to be dying.
Steve acknowledged the overwhelming response he had from his listeners by talking about the fact that he was going to die. He describes a sense of connection with the audience he had never felt before and described it as a very positive experience for himself.
2016 became known as the year of “celebrity deaths” – something which caused upset, sadness, and anger. We tend to think of celebrity figures as a bit untouchable, and when these famous faces suddenly disappear, it forces us to face our own fears and worries about this known unknown.
Celebrities are celebrities often because they do something – be it portraying a character or writing music – which resonates with large numbers of people, and therefore the actor, musician, writer, or whoever they are, become revered.
To be a public figure is, by definition, to be a prominent presence in the lives of large numbers of so-called “ordinary” people.
When a celebrity dies, it might perhaps feel like a part of us has been taken away, and it also therefore reminds us of the fact that we will all die.
Steve Hewlett set an extraordinary and inspiring example by being so open and honest, not just with the audience but also with himself. He saw the opportunity to talk about having cancer as a way of helping others through it, as well as encouraging all people to think about death, dying, and ultimately how we wish to live our lives right now.