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When grieving a celebrity goes too far

Celebrity-200While grief is a natural part of life, Celebrity Worship Syndrome can cause some people to experience extreme anxiety and loss when a famous person dies, writes Maria Schindlecker.

22 August 2014

Most of us have some interest in celebrities, be it from movies, sport or music. We generally have that one person we admire for various reasons and at times look up to, to a certain extent.

But when these feelings and perceptions of admiration become overwhelming, it can have serious psychological impacts on a person. And the unexpected death of that celebrity can spark feelings that are more intense than that of sympathetic conversations over the water cooler at work.

The sentiment shown by fans with the passing of someone in the media spotlight can be felt and is reflected globally. 

With the recent death of Robin Williams the grief expressed for him is revealed and reflected by not only fans but also fellow entertainers taking to social media.  I too also took part in posting about his death, as did many of my friends.

This outpouring of grief is a usual response with the sudden and unexpected loss, as the death comes as a shock to people.

But there is a point where what is considered a “normal” reaction to the death of a celebrity, turns to displays of grief and emotion that are perceived to be out of the ordinary displays of bereavement. This is due to a deep attachment to the celebrity.

Attachment to celebrities

Psychologist Kim Hadley explains that the attachment we have to the famous is also a form of socialising.

“Knowledge of certain celebrities provides an opportunity for enhancing social and entertainment connections with peers,” she says. “A casual attachment to a celebrity for gregarious people can also serve to provide a level of excitement in their life.”

Not only do we love to gossip and talk about the comings and goings of our favorite celebrities as social chitchat, in most cases we also have grown up with them.

Celebrities are a part of our lives because they are “well placed as potential role models due to their mass media coverage, notoriety and often glorified status”, says Hadley.

We have grown with them and at times can be seen to live through their ups and downs, even relating to certain highs and lows they may experience.

According to Hadley, the attachment the person has felt to the celebrity over the years and the media coverage received has made the celebrity a part of a person’s life. So when the person dies, “it is expected that the individual may experience a loss”. 

The emotions we feel with the death of a particular celebrity can be also a reminder of a person’s mortality, she adds.

However, while most of us feel some sentiment at the passing of our favorite celebrities there can also be a more serious side to a fan’s outpouring of emotion.

Celebrity Worship Syndrome

Clinical psychologist Grant Brecht says there can be an abnormal attachment to celebrities that is often referred to as Celebrity Worship Syndrome, whereby people see their idols as more than just stars, they incorporate them into their lives.

This syndrome can range from mild to severe cases in people. 

Among the symptoms are:

  • Believing you have a special bond with the person
  • Believing the celebrity is your soul mate
  • Having frequent thoughts of the person – whether voluntary or involuntary
  • Purchasing personal possessions of the person such as napkins and other objects used by the celebrity
  • Becoming emotional if the celebrity marries or if something happens to them

There are several Jackson-funeral-250questionnaires that can be done to identify if you suffer from the symptoms Celebrity Worship Syndrome that are conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist to evaluate the severity of the disorder.

The syndrome is not as uncommon as we think. A study by the British Journal of Psychology found that out of 600 tested participants approximately a third were diagnosed with some form of severity of this syndrome.

Some of the reasons for attachment to a celebrity include being in awe of the star, fascination with their achievements or a desire to possess the skills and abilities of the icon.

“The person becomes overly involved with the details of a celebrity’s personal life,” explains Brecht. “The ‘worship’ is always towards people who are in the public eye, but may range from film or television stars, sporting and pop stars to politicians and authors.”

This obsession with the celebrity and their impact on a person can be clearly seen when they die.

People have shown sorrow and loss for many famous celebrities from Elvis to Michael Jackson. Jackson’s death was breaking news all around the world. His funeral was televised globally. And while Whitney Houston didn’t have such a globally televised farewell, her funeral was surrounded by thousands of fans and also televised on cable channels in the US.

In both instances the outpouring of grief from fans was enormous.

When the celebrity passes away the grieving party may be so emotionally affected to the point where the person “may engage in rituals as if they knew the [celebrity] intimately by attending or attempting to attend church services, sending flowers, cards and so on and adorning their home with photos [and other artefacts] almost as a shrine,” says Brecht.

For people who suffer from Celebrity Worship Syndrome the passing of the celebrity is like losing a family member or friend and they will experience the same type of grieving or loss.

And while a certain amount of grief is natural, it becomes a cause of concern if the person becomes significantly distressed, loses touch with reality and displays obsessive or depressive behaviour. Brecht suggests that in some instances there maybe an underlying borderline personality disorder.

In these cases, it is advisable to seek advice from a qualified mental health professional.

Maria Schindlecker is a freelance writer with a Masters in Journalism and Communications from the University of New South Wales in Australia

Images: Michael Jackson tribute, ForestLawn2010 via a Creative Commons licence.

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