Analysis: 'It's actually a complex question when you go to to pull at the strings of how it all comes together.'

When a celebrity dies, it often leads to an outpouring of grief not just from people who knew them, but from their fans. We can feel a genuine loss knowing they won't be creating more of the art we have come to know and love and even a solace at knowing we can still have what they left behind.

Despite them being a stranger to you, they might have been there for seminal moments in your life (a first kiss, the first dance) and there’s a sense of community in the fandom that comes with following someone through their career. It might seem strange that we would care so deeply about losing an artist we don’t actually know, but the feelings that come with the loss are genuine.

"People come into me about this kind of thing and they’re like, 'does this make sense?’ And it does," says Dr John Francis Leader, psychotherapist and academic researcher with UCD’s Media and Entertainment Psychology Lab . "It's actually a complex question when you go to to pull at the strings of how it all comes together."

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"One of the primary things is that no person is an island and that's really the key to all of this. That’s not just the case between us and other people, but it's the case between us and the world around us, the environment we’re in, the music we listen to and and the art that we experience."

The research suggests that when a famous artist passes away, we can experience grief in the same way that we would for someone that we know in our "real life," Leader explains. "The other thing that grief research shows is, it's not just the loss of people that can evoke grief, it’s opportunities, it’s possibilities for the future."

There are two concepts that go a long way in explaining why we can feel so connected to the famous people in our lives: para-social relationships and social cognition.

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Some famous people live very private lives, but the reality is that sometimes we do actually know a lot about them between the interviews, the videos, the biographies, and the social media posts that can give the feeling that we see them more than we do our own family members. "So in that sense there's a huge connection there already and we feel that sense of intimacy with them..- so when we find out that person isn't around anymore there's a big trigger," Leader explains.

That’s when the idea of a para-social relationship comes in, a kind of one-sided relationship. "The para-social sometimes is described as looking through one-way glass; so you're seeing that person but they're not seeing you." That's not inherently a good or a bad thing, but it can be a problem at times, says Leader. Think of someone who sits in the basement all day, or in their rooms, without living their life.

"The trouble with the para-social relationship, in the research, is when a person isn't having other relationships because of the para-social one. There’s nothing at all wrong with having a figure that inspires us, they don't know that we exist but we appreciate them, and that’s a really good thing." An example of that would be a child that’s growing up with no one like them around, in terms of their background, their identify, or their interests, and they discover an artist and their work in whatever shape or form, and they see there are people they can relate to.

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Then there’s the role of social cognition: what we project on to the other person and the idea that we also construct that perception based on our own life experience and expectations.

In para-social relationships there’s a sense that we do know a lot about them but they don’t know a lot about us, says Leader. "You might follow that train of thought and say, well that means that if we don't know much about an artist therefore it would follow that we maybe don't have a deep relationship with them or wouldn't miss them if they're gone."

"The funny thing is that it points to the other way research wise. Sometimes ambiguity or not knowing a lot about a person but knowing some things helps us project, so we can kind of create a little bit of unintentional fantasy in our own mind of what that person must be like."

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These para-social relationships have been heightened by social media, because it’s much easier to get the sense that you know a famous person when they’re sharing pictures from their daily lives online and sharing intimate details, which we can then comment on and interact with. We can also get the sense that they are talking directly to us, breaking the fourth wall, when they do "live" appearances on social media or post videos. These posts are crucially also being shared side-by-side with posts from friends in your personal life, which blurs the lines and places a similar significance on both.

That experience through social media, or through interviews etc. builds a familiarity which can feel like a relationship and we might even become invested in knowing what happens to them. In a sense that’s nothing new when you think of popular radio voices or news anchors appearing on our screens every evening in our homes, making them feel like part of our lives.

"Knowing a lot can lead to forming a deep connection but sometimes actually knowing even less can lead to more projection and therefore more of a depth and intimacy in your connection," says Leader. We can, unintentionally, let our minds run a little bit wild because we have space to project and create an illusion without the person themselves contradicting it.

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The role of community and fandom, which we have always had (think of Beatles Mania), has changed with the online world, says Leader. There’s an entanglement. "You’d wonder if the word fan is fit for purpose nowadays, because it's more complex than that, isn’t it? When I hear fan, I think of a rock concert where you got somebody on stage over there and you're over here. But now because social media etc. it’s even messier than that."

Art is designed and created to evoke a feeling and is strongly linked with nostalgia, too. "If we hear, "that artist who made that song that was playing when I was a kid, that person’s dead", it's like "whoa". On a deeper level there's a lot going on there when you're processing that because it kind of forces a little bit of regression therapy to happen in that moment, we kind of look back and go, "oh my God, my life, that song" and "am I ageing? and that kind of thing, too."

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"All of these things are entangled together in a very rich way.

"It's memories and expectations and all of these things together that get stirred and that's not unhealthy to have that, because we do have kind of an extended family in the world, in terms of people we know who we see regularly, and people that we don’t, and artists and all sorts of people who inspire us, so sometimes that's a healthy way to think about it."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ