Fisher, Reynolds, Bowie, Prince – why celebrity deaths hit us so hard

Johnny Taylor opened his Facebook feed Wednesday to news that film icon Debbie Reynolds had died, just one day after her daughter, “Star Wars” star Carrie Fisher, had died after collapsing on a plane days earlier. He immediately flashed back to the living room of his childhood home.

He was 5 or 6, snuggled on the couch with his mother – a hair stylist who adored musicals and sang all over the house. They were watching “Singin’ in the Rain,” the 1952 classic that made Reynolds a Hollywood star, and his mom was putting on a show of her own.

“I remember her watching it with me on some old movie station, and I remember her getting up and dancing and singing to it,” said Taylor, now 39. “I just remember her being such a big Debbie Reynolds fan. My mom has passed and (Debbie Reynolds’ death) made me have all these memories of my mom. It was just bizarre.”

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Taylor, a Sacramento comedian who can still call up the words to much of the film’s soundtrack, is taking in Reynolds’ and Fisher’s deaths with a heavy heart, and like millions of others this week he took to Facebook to mourn. At the end of a year marked with celebrity deaths, experts say fans are sharing a media-induced grief that, while nothing like losing a loved one, comes with its own rituals.

“Debbie Reynolds always had a really special place in my heart,” Taylor’s Facebook status read Wednesday. “Rest easy.”

Deaths of movie stars, musical greats and other public figures, especially when sudden, awaken memories of first concerts, favorite lines or films that provided comfort during hard times. They bring on laughter or tears and inspire binge sessions of an artist’s entire canon. Most of all, they make people question their own place in the world, said Megan Negendank, a Sacramento therapist with experience in grief counseling.

“Sometimes if the icon who passed away is someone who either they grew up looking up to or someone they relate to, that can lead to a lot of self-reflection and thoughts on mortality,” she said. “It brings them back to their own identity and their own life. They think about what their life has meant to them and what they want to do with it.”

Fans have long had an emotional link with the objects of their admiration. When John Lennon died in 1980, fans built a Central Park sanctuary in his name. Michael Jackson’s overdose in 2009 spurred musical tributes around the world.

But the severity of the grief has been amplified during the last decade as social media provides users a daily list of fallen heroes, said Jesse Drew, professor of cinema and digital media at UC Davis.

Not too long ago, people had to go out of their way to find out the fate of a favorite singer or actor, he said. Not every death was front page news and became a societywide emotional event.

“You wouldn’t have heard about most of these deaths – only if it came up in your specific cultural sphere would you know,” Drew said. “The speed at which the news travels and the people it goes to has helped build the feeling that there’s this wave of celebrity death.”

2016 may not have actually seen more celebrity deaths than other years, but it may feel like that due to increased coverage.

This year was also particularly painful because the deaths drew fans from every age group and demographic, Drew said. In January, rock and fashion legend David Bowie succumbed to cancer, followed closely by actor Alan Rickman of the beloved Harry Potter series. In April, fans mourned country music veteran Merle Haggard as well as pop-soul icon Prince. Boxing champion Muhammad Ali died over the summer, and Christmas week brought the death of ’80s singer-songwriter George Michael as well as Fisher and Reynolds.

When celebrities associated with certain ideas or time periods die, fans see it as a loss of more than just a person, Drew said.

“Cultural icons become defining characters of what we identify with and what we want to be, who we want to be,” he said. “There’s something very psychological in the way we absorb those things, and they become central to who we are. … When that dies, people grieve the passing of a part of their own psyche”

With Prince’s passing, Sacramento resident Amreet Sandhu said her sadness was about much more than music. Sandhu, who described herself as “a member of the queer community,” said she saw Prince as a sex-positive role model who gave her and others “permission to be themselves.” She worried about who would fill that gap after his death.

Within hours of the news, Sandhu had put together a dance party at LowBrau in midtown Sacramento, where people hugged, cried and grooved to their favorite Prince songs.

“People had a lot sadness, and their sadness was similar to mine,” she said. “Entertainers give us so much of themselves, that at death it’s appropriate to respect what they’ve given us and celebrate their lives. For us, it felt right to dance.”

Taylor, who was a fan of both Prince and Bowie, said he still feels a twinge of sorrow when he hears certain songs. It’s taken him a while to process the fact they’re both actually gone, he said.

“I kind of looked at them as immortals,” Taylor said. “It never occurred to me that they were human. They were magic. Losing them both within a few months of each other, that was pretty heavy.”

Drew said many people see celebrities as living charmed lives far more glamorous than their own.

“They’re larger than life,” he said. “We have a fascination with the rich and famous.”

For those affected by celebrity deaths, social media provide a ready forum for talking about loss and amplifying grief, Negendank said.

“There’s kind of this group cathartic experience, and it can actually make people feel more connected at times when everybody is sharing about that loss,” she said. “There’s this group grieving, and that’s really healthy.”

This past week’s losses were also sandwiched between a stressful election season and an uncertain political future, which has intensified anxiety especially for those dismayed by the results of the presidential vote, Drew said.

“It plays into this theme of everything going to hell,” Drew said. “Our heroes are dead, and our enemies are in power. … I think there’s a feeling of being overwhelmed.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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