Over my lifetime I’ve encountered death in an unwelcome variety of forms, from Holly, a gorgeous, funny little 4 year old who I looked after, to friends, relatives and worst of all, my Dad. Grief is an odd and complex emotion which I’ve found to be strangely different with every relationship lost. Sometimes unexpected, either because I’ve felt nothing more than a momentary sadness followed by the guilt of lacking a greater pain, to the other extreme of being tripped up by memories for years to come.
2016 has seen an unwelcome spat of celebrity deaths. Our connection with these people represents another form of relationship and a different type of grief. Although the relationship itself is one-sided (or what is technically known as ‘parasocial’) it’s ever present in our lives defining elements of who we are: our values, beliefs and attitudes, in the same way as our friends do.
I’ve been saddened by all the celebrity deaths this year from David Bowie to Carrie Fisher, but the sadness has been momentary, not really what could be considered grief. In contrast I was shocked by the emotion I felt when Prince died. Although I owned a couple of his albums and saw him in concert I never glorified Prince. So why did I feel grief?
Music has a deeper impact on our brain than almost any other daily occurrence. It’s experienced unconsciously in the primitive brain, which is also where we experience emotion most intensely. As scientist Koelsch says “music-evoked emotions involve the very core of evolutionarily adaptive neuroaffective mechanisms.” Consequently music forms very deep emotional pathways in the brain.
The loss of a constant
When we’ve seen someone on our screens throughout life, their parting leaves a gap. Prince was a musician whose music I valued from early in life. We had a common room at school where we played Prince at any given opportunity. As hormone charged teenagers his sexuality and graphic lyrics represented a forbidden excitement that forged a strong connection in our psyche and undoubtedly influenced our self-image and identity. Unlike some musicians who came and went, Prince was prolific and consistent over the years. The connection may have changed as we aged but it never waned, so when he died there was an abrupt feeling of loss.
The loss of connection
Celebrities connect us in the same way as friends. Prince represented a web of relationships from school through to family. This mirrors the death of someone we love; someone who holds people together and also preserves elements of our past that form our identity.
The loss of great talent
Celebrities ‘typically’ have talent and their loss represents a sorrow of ‘greatness gone’. Prince was an outstanding, extraordinary musician both as singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He had an incredible vocal range, amazing capability to span music styles and was constantly innovating. His loss leaves me questioning whether anyone like that will ever exist again.
Loss too soon or ‘untimely death’
When celebrities die young it evokes a greater level of emotion. Prince was only 57 when he died, this engenders a feeling of wrong doing, that he was taken too soon. It also acts as a stark reminder of our own mortality which in itself evokes a lot of incredibly deep emotions.
The loss of exemplary personal traits
Prince fulfilled many of the personality characteristics we seek in a leader. He was humble while confident in his abilities; generous and kind, a philanthropist and humanitarian who was deeply concerned about the state of the world; able to put creative thoughts into action; always physically and mentally active and strongly determined. Most emotionally arousing of all he had mystique. He was an introvert who defied norms and expectations creating a degree of secrecy, excitement and wonder. The loss of such a role model is sad at a personal level but also feels like a blow to the world at large.
This is not meant as an ode to Prince simply an illustration, each and every person who dies represents a loss of some sort to someone. Each connection and relationship is unique and the grief encountered depends on the depth of the connection, the breadth of impact that person had on our lives and the hole that they will leave. What it reminds us is that we are human, we love and care about other humans and it’s ok to feel sadness when someone is no longer here, whether they were someone we knew or a person who represented part of who we are.
Roll on 2017 – Happy New Year!
Levitin,D.J. and Grafton,S.T. (2016). Measuring the representational space of music with fMRI: a case study with Sting. Neurocase, 0, 1-10
Koelsch, S. (2010). Towards a neural basis of music-evoked emotions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 3, 131-137
Image Source: http://variety.com/2016/film/columns/carrie-fisher-deaths-bowie-prince-and-muhammad-ali-taught-us-1201948943/