In 2016, Alan Rickman, one of favourite actors of all time lost his battle to pancreatic cancer. I remember being devastated back then and every time the anniversary of his death comes up, I still get a little teary eyed.
For me, Alan Rickman formed such a central part of my younger years – his role in the Harry Potter franchise only cemented my hero worship of him.
He was hero and villain, charming and dashing (if you haven’t watched Sense and Sensibility yet, you should definitely get on that stat) and he slipped into his roles with the kind of ease that has earned him the reputation of being one of the UK's greatest actors of all time.
I always had the fanciful notion that I’d one day just run into him and get to tell him how inspiring he was to me and that through him I’ve learned to discover that some of the best characters are the ones not everyone likes – the complex, ambivalent antihero whose motivations are not always clear and whose methods many people despised.
He was also one of the very first actors who instilled a love of theatre in me and I am, to this day, heartbroken over the fact that I’ll never get to see him perform in London.
READ MORE: PICS: Unforgettable moments from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's life through the years
Just earlier this year, South Africa suffered a huge loss when beloved icon, jazz musician and activist Hugh Masekela lost his battle against prostate cancer.
People all over social media took the time to share what he meant to them, and for me, it really hit home that this wasn’t just about what his music meant to them – although there is certainly no denying what a massive and cultural impact it's had on us.
No, people were mourning the legend and comrade who stood up for the voiceless, whose music bridged gaps and whose stage presence undoubtedly made people feel like they not only had an ally, but also a friend.
Truly, I don’t think I have enough space on this platform to talk about how big of a loss the jazz pioneer was to the world. His infectious laughter and the fact that he almost always had a smile on his face often left me wanting to bask in his energy and soak up the good vibes he spread with his presence alone.
The thing about mourning celebrities, is that we may not know them, but they, through their art, their interviews, their presence on social media, become benchmarks for the pop culture that becomes so intrinsic to us.
We relate to the voices that are echoes of our souls. They are the friends that we may not know in real life, but who we feel a strong connection to because, according to Kimberley Truong from Refinery29, their work often reflects many people’s real life experiences. People look up to their heroes because their narratives are relatable.
When a celebrity we love dies, we’re left devastated because we’re left with memories of what they’ve taught us, and we know we’ll never get the joy of experiencing any new lessons again. I’d also like to think that we’re also left feeling bereft because we take their mortality for granted.
We’re always caught off guard because subconsciously we believe that they’ll be around forever.
Another icon who died earlier this year also exposed something a lot uglier that we’ve buried underneath the surface for too long.
Mam' Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was many things to so many people. Beloved mother of the nation, a ferocious and fierce activist who was never afraid to stand up for what she believed in (even when she was betrayed) and a generous woman who often put the needs of others above her own.
South Africans mourned the loss, but the loss was also marred by people who continued to villainise her, denying and negating her role as anti-apartheid activist because they preferred to promote the scandals that followed her instead of recognising her as being a complex human being who made mistakes but has always been (and will always be) the revolutionary freedom fighter who fought hard for the freedom of the oppressed.
It shows that in some cases, grief isn’t an equaliser.
READ MORE: When I was 16 I felt numb – and tried to commit suicide
That said, I think it’s important to mourn the deaths of the people who’ve made some impact in your lives.
And often, those people aren’t the people that are always closest to you, but rather the ones whose public footprint and legacy have spoken to us on a level that encouraged us to grow in ways we don’t normally acknowledge because we often shy away from the thinking that some of our best life lessons come from the pop culture that surrounds us on a daily basis.
I’m not afraid to say that a celebrity death makes me sad.
To this day, I am still mourning actor Robin Williams who brought me so much joy throughout my childhood years.
I still wonder what a new Brenda Fassie album would sound like and more than 10 years on, I am still angry that Taliep Petersen is no longer around to breathe musical life into our stories.
But what do experts say about grieving celebrities? Is it perfectly normal? Are we being melodramatic?
I reached out to Cape Town-based psychiatrist, Dr Renata Schoeman, who not only assured me that it’s perfectly normal, but that grieving over our favourite celebrities is actually good for us:
How real is the grief?
Dr Schoeman says that losing our favourite celebrities can actually trigger grief.
Thanks to social media, we often consider celebrities “intimate strangers” because we see and hear from them on a daily basis, so “their sudden absence from our lives can trigger a form of disenfranchised grief” – which is a form of socially inappropriate mourning.
However, she adds that researchers who’ve studied fans’ responses to the deaths of their favourite celebrities “don’t find that their grief is inauthentic or self-indulgent.”
“Clinically, it looks no different to the grief that someone experiences after the loss of a family friend or loved one.”
Mourning celebrities are good for us.
Grief is not only cathartic, but can help us to develop “empathy and understanding”. In some cases, Dr Schoeman says, that it can also help break down stigma since we often forget that “celebrities may have their own silent battles” – Robin Williams’s battle with depression showing that we don’t always look past our preconceived notions of what someone with depression looks like.
Mourning the loss of a celebrity also means that we may be grieving over the impact the celebrity’s music or art has had on us.
Dr Renata adds, “emmotional memories (e.g. certain songs from certain artists) can 'transport' us back in time and help us to reflect on our lives…then and now. It helps us to be more aware of our own inner life and awareness helps us to take responsibility and to take action to change!”
Grieving over the loss of a public figure can also cement and transcend cultural values, while offering a shared sense of understanding. For example, Hugh Masekela’s death showed that “we are all part of something bigger. And although we may have many differences, we also share many commonalities.“
It’s a kind of grief that, Schoeman adds, shows “a universal human connection, and social solidarity” and also shows that “by recognising that someone’s life mattered, we also reassure ourselves that ours do as well.”
Which celebrity death has really hit you hard and what did they mean to you?