by Justin Standfield
I ran an online Community of Practice session for fellow mindfulness teachers this morning. During one of the discussions, our conversation turned to the news overnight of the death of actor, Matthew Perry, probably best-known for playing the role of Chandler Bing in ‘Friends’. By chance, everyone in the session was a Friends fan so a few of us shared our favourite Chandler moments – everyone shared their shock and sadness at Perry’s death at just 54 years old.
As a group, we also commented on how the passing of a famous person can often have a profound impact on individuals around the world. To many of us, it may seem perplexing that people can experience intense emotional reactions to the death of someone they didn’t know personally. However, I think we can better understand the response by exploring a few of the psychological, cultural and sociological factors that contribute to shared mourning like this.
Through the media and other forms of indirect interaction, we develop what psychologists call “parasocial relationships” with celebrities. These relationships are one-sided and one-way, with the individual feeling a sense of closeness and familiarity with the celebrity. Nowadays, a common way that people form parasocial relationships is through following individuals on TikTok and avidly consuming their content. This sense of connection can be so strong that when a celebrity dies, it feels like losing a friend or family member.
Celebrities as archetypes
The term “archetype” means original pattern in Ancient Greek; the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung used the concept of archetypes in his theory of the human psyche. He identified 12 universal, mythic character archetypes that reside within our collective unconscious. Celebrities often embody certain qualities or represent specific values that resonate with us. They can serve as role models or sources of inspiration. When a beloved celebrity passes away, it can feel like losing a symbol of hope or a representation of something meaningful. I wonder if some of the loss that people will be feeling regarding Matthew Perry’s death will actually relate to his Friends character, given that Chandler Bing can be seen as an archetype (one of Jung’s 12 Archetypes is the ‘Jester’, which is also known as the fool, the trickster, the joker or the comedian).
Celebrities have the ability to touch and influence people’s lives through their work – whether that be through comedy, sport, music, acting or even reality TV. When they pass away, it can evoke a collective sense of loss and nostalgia among fans who have shared in their experiences. Whether it’s through memorable performances, groundbreaking achievements or simply the impact they’ve had on popular culture, celebrities can leave a lasting impression on individuals and communities.
Cultural icons and collective identity
Tardar Sauce (a.k.a. Grumpy Cat) was arguably the world’s most famous cat; she died in 2019 in Arizona, aged seven. Tardar Sauce had millions of followers on social media and it’s been remarked that there will never be another Grumpy Cat, only copies of her. Certain human celebrities become iconic figures that are deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric of society; examples that come to my mind are Nelson Mandela and Diana, Princess of Wales. Their passing can have a profound impact on the collective identity of a community or an entire nation. It can serve as a reminder of the passing of an era and can stir up feelings of sentimentality and reflection. The death of these cultural icons can also trigger a reassessment of values and a collective introspection on the impact they have had on society.
Media coverage and social influence
The extensive media coverage that follows a celebrity’s death magnifies its emotional impact to some extent. The seemingly constant exposure and discussions surrounding the loss can create a sense of shared grief and make it difficult to escape the news. We have seen this in recent years with famous people such as Queen Elizabeth II, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams and George Michael to name a few.
Mortality and existential reflection
Death is a universal human experience and the loss of a famous person can serve as a reminder of our own mortality. It prompts existential questions about the purpose and meaning of life, perhaps forcing us to confront our own lifestyles, emotions and beliefs. Matthew Perry was just five years older than me; I can see how the sudden absence of a celebrity around your own age could be an unsettling reminder that nobody is immune to mortality, regardless of their fame or accomplishments.
Mourning as an expression of cultural connection
The death of a celebrity can also become a communal experience that brings people together, uniting fans or followers from different backgrounds and cultures. This shared grief can create a sense of belonging and connection, as people come together to mourn and remember the impact the public figure had on their lives. I witnessed a lot of this in September last year following the death of the Queen.
Loss of a voice and influence
Celebrities often use their platforms to advocate for causes and speak out about important issues. When they pass away, there is a loss of their voice and influence, leaving a void in the community they served. The absence of their advocacy and the impact they had on society can be deeply felt by those who admired and supported them.
Celebrities can become symbols and representations of specific movements, ideas or times in history (for example, Bobby Charlton and the 1966 England World Cup squad). When they die, it can feel like a symbol of the end of an era or the loss of a significant cultural figure. For Friends fans, the death of Matthew Perry is a sad milestone in that he’s the first of the six main characters to die.
Celebrity worship and emotional attachment
Some individuals develop a strong emotional attachment to celebrities, idolising them and forming an emotional bond. As a result, the death of a beloved celebrity can be a devastating loss, similar to losing a close friend or confidant. Although they didn’t physically die, when Take That split up in February 1996, the Samaritans set up a special helpline to help fans who were distressed by the separation.
The grief and sadness felt in these situations can be just as profound as any other type of personal loss. At the end of the day, celebrities are human beings who have made an impact on the world in some way. When they die, we mourn not only their individual loss but also the loss of their contributions and the potential they had to continue making a difference. In summary, it’s understandable why the death of a celebrity can have such a significant emotional impact on people, even if they didn’t personally know them.