Why do people take the public, social-media spectacle of celebrity death so personally?

“We feel a piece of our childhood part the moment our icons do.”
“We feel a piece of our childhood part the moment our icons do.”
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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After musical genius iconoclasts David Bowie and Prince died in quick succession early this year, others loudly lamented the loss of their idols, while I was able to quietly move on with my life.

They were rock gods, I thought. And rock gods live complicated, often drug-addled lives. And die in complicated and turbulent ways.

It wasn’t personal.

In November, the fates took 82-year-old Florence Henderson, aka Carol Brady—the cheerful, golden-haired matriarch of the 1960s-1970s era Brady Bunch sitcom. Following that, Alan Thicke, aka Jason Seaver—the perennially wise and witty dad from the 1980’s sitcom Growing Pains had a heart attack (his aorta ruptured) while playing ice hockey with his son. He was only 69. People en mass mourned the loss of their childhood favorites by posting photos, remembrances, and memorials on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

In December, while enjoying a family vacation at Disney World—amidst the glitter of sequin mouse ears, sightings of Belle and Elsa, and chocolate frozen bananas on a stick—I learned that one of my favorite pop singers—George Michael, who embraced a decidedly unlike Disney-like lifestyle—had died. On Christmas.

“Who is in charge of bubble wrapping and protecting Madonna, Bon Jovi, Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Sheena Easton, Steve Perry, and Stevie Nicks? #my80sicons” I wrote on my Facebook wall.

“Don’t forget Duran Duran, Sting, Betty White and Barry Manilow,” my friends replied.

Fuck you 2016, the world responded on Twitter and social media.

Two days later, Carrie Fisher died of a heart attack. She was not only Princess Leia from Star Wars, she was also a hilarious and honest writer who had penned “Postcards from the Edge” about her mental illness and not-so-disguised tempestuous relationship with her Hollywood legend mom, Debbie Reynolds.

After Carrie Fisher died, my social media feed went wild with memes and Twitter tributes.

A day later, Debbie Reynolds died.

Now, it felt personal. Nauseous, and filled with anxiety, I found it difficult to catch my breath, and even harder to sleep.

Reynolds’ incandescent, Oscar-nominated performance as Molly Brown in the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brownthe story of a poor, uneducated mountain girl who leaves her cabin in search of respect, a wealthy husband, and a better life—and who in the process transforms herself into someone educated, multi-lingual, sophisticated; a leader, with the support of the love of her life—had in many ways been the soundtrack to my life.

Molly was the first character I saw on film as a young girl, who showed me that there is no shame in ambition: for love, for money, for success, no matter what the world tells you.

In the beginning of the movie, she is poor and illiterate and sings,

I’m going to learn to read and write. I’m going to see what there is to see. And if you go from nowhere on the road to somewhere and you meet anyone, you know it’s me!

That last line could be the anthem for ambitious people everywhere.

Her quotes from the movie are priceless, too. “I mean more to me than I mean to anybody else,” she says, and “nobody wants to see me down, like I wants to see me up.” Sounds selfish, right? However, I’ve learned that there is no shame in true self-love that demands respect from others. In fact, it is the pinnacle of a healthy life.

Although I didn’t come from her background, and benefited from a college-education, I toiled in over 15 low-level jobs until I found my calling as a magazine editor, during which time I traveled the world. After years being single and penning a column as the “Dating Diva,” I got married in midlife, despite reading the now-debunked study that a woman over 40 had as much a chance of getting killed by a terrorist as of getting married.

I define my own reality and nobody else, I asserted in true Molly-like fashion when, after treatment for infertility, I gave birth to my daughter in my mid-forties, defying conventional wisdom.

My career also has gone through reinvention. After taking time off to experience early motherhood, I found my way back into freelance writing in 2014, and I’ve since been widely published and in print. In 2015, I became a writing/editing coach, and I’m chairing the 2017 American Society of Journalists and Authors’ conference in New York City.

I’m still recovering emotionally from Debbie Reynolds’ death, but judging by the collective groans emitted at the announcement of each fresh new celebrity demise (and yes, they keep coming), I know that I’m not alone in my highly personal reaction to a beloved music, film, or television star’s passing. Each time it happens, it’s a gut punch, and feels like we are losing an extended member of our family—because of our familiarity with their movies, social media musings, or music.

In the second week of a new year, enmeshed in a fraught political, economic, and cultural climate, we feel a piece of our childhood part the moment our icons die, and when that happens the reality of our own mortality drawing ever closer is terrifying.

So I’m going to honor the memory of Debbie Reynolds by watching The Unsinkable Molly Brown on the DVD I feel lucky to possess. I’ve also recorded the Twilight Zone marathon for later binge watching. And of course, through it all, I’ll share my feelings on social media.

Because it helps to have support from a community, as we mourn our losses, count our blessings, prepare for the future, and bravely enter a precarious and somewhat surreal 2017.