Why do we grieve when a celebrity dies, if we didn’t really know them?

If an entire year is written off as ‘terrible’ simply because it was David Bowie’s last one with us, perhaps we need to readjust our perspective.

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2007. Warner Bros | MoviestillsDB.com. Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Stars Wars, 1977. Twentieth Century Fox | MoviestillsDB.com.

If 2016 were a human being, it would be the most unpopular person of all time. The year was held personally responsible for the deaths of our most beloved celebrities, as if the year itself was the incarnation of Lord Valdemort out to get all us Muggles.

The outpouring of emotions on twitter, where people were seriously upset—some going so far as to claim that their childhoods were ruined and all their memories now tainted—seemed a little too dramatic. But the truth is, this isn’t new; it’s been happening since the outpouring of public grief over the celebrity poet and the first dieting icon, Lord Byron, who died of pneumonia in 1824. (Perhaps his death had something to do with the fact that his diet was mostly potatoes soaked in vinegar?)

For the vast majority of us, though, 2016 was probably no better or worse than any other. For me, it was most definitely “better,” and I hope that when you really think back on it, you feel the same way. But, somehow, I know that what happens to celebrities affects us deeply and changes our memories all the same, because they have been a part of our lives. They’re at the forefront of our society and ever present in our living rooms via our many screens. We feel like we know them, even though we’ve never met them. And although the relationship is one-sided, it’s not all in our heads—we really do relate to these people.

What if we directed some of the attention we fix on celebrities to those who are the real lights in our lives?”

While some of the reactions online are certainly over the top, I don’t think it’s laughable to be sad that, say, Carrie Fisher died. Many of us grew up watching her fight against the forces of evil. She may not really be Princess Leia, and the Empire may not really exist, but the time we spent getting to know and admire her still occupies a place in our hearts and memories. Because of celebrity, certain individuals capture our attention. When they speak, we listen. When they succeed, we celebrate. When they’re sad, we grieve. And this is neither good nor bad, but just the way it is.

MORE TO READ: David Bowie’s wife shares “sign in the sky” from her late husband

However, it can become a problem if the attention we give celebrities takes over real life. If an entire year is written off as “terrible” simply because it was David Bowie’s last one with us, perhaps we need to readjust our perspective. The point being, it’s sad when a celebrity dies, and it certainly commands more of our attention because of the role they played in society, but the reason it’s sad isn’t because a celebrity died, but because a person died. The hard truth is, there are funerals every day, every year, and that won’t be changing any time soon. Celebrity deaths are ultimately a reminder to not take the people around us for granted, because we don’t now how long they’ll be with us.

Let’s keep in mind that those closest to us are the ones who truly deserve our attention and love. They’re the real celebrities.

What if we directed some of the admiration and attention we fix on celebrities to those who are the real lights in our lives? After all, what we admire about celebrities—their quirks, talents, and unique personalities—are equally present in our loved ones. Even better, our relationship with them doesn’t only go one-way, through the television and twitter. We might ask ourselves why we appreciate our friends, family, and co-workers, and why they appreciate us—like how a friend sends a smiley face text to brighten up our day, or laughs at an old memory, or quietly sits nearby during a funeral, or shares a pot of coffee while our kids play together.

So when celebrities die, let’s pray for them and not be embarrassed about being sad, but at the same time, let’s keep in mind that those closest to us are the ones who truly deserve our attention and love. They’re the real celebrities.

Each week, Fr. Michael Rennier reflects on the Sunday Mass readings and pulls out a theme applicable to our daily lives. Today’s reflection is based on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier
Fr. Michael Rennier graduated from Yale Divinity School and lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and 5 children. He is an ordained Catholic priest through the Pastoral Provision for former Episcopal clergymen that was created by Pope St. John Paul II. He’s also a contributing editor at Dappled Things, a journal dedicated to the written and visual arts.

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