Dearly Departed: Celeb Deaths in the Social Media Age

Photo by Adam bielawski – Wikimedia

I wake up on a winter’s Monday morning, ready to start the workweek. Part of my ritual, as for so many, involves sparking the black screen in my hand and firing up social media. Today my feed is preoccupied with one thing: the surprise demise of David Bowie. (“Please don’t leave us this soon,” one friend writes.) When I tell my partner, she offers sincere condolences: “I’m so sorry, I know what a huge fan you are.”

True, that. And yet: While the singer-actor-revolutionary aesthete was an enormous influence on my worldview, I’ve never met him. His passing is abstract compared to those who knew and lived with the man, but everyone in my social media feels it in the center of their hearts. 

On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, individual experiences coagulate into larger snowballs of feeling. This feels especially true in the wake of national tragedies, holidays, or when a celebrity dies. It’s true that when we mourn for lost ones we also mourn for ourselves. We’re saddened by the loss of the parts of ourselves, and our history, more than the unknowable journey of the deceased. Our grief is self-reflective: We have lost the particular way the departed mirrored something beautiful, unique, and true about self and experience back to us.

Not every public figure we grieve is a one-time glam-rock would-be extraterrestrial messiah, or a smooth-singing daughter of pop royalty (Natalie Cole, who died last New Year’s Eve). Take 1960s U of M rebel and inclusion crusader Anna Stanley, who passed away last summer (she was among the student activists whose protests led to the establishment of the school’s African-American and African Studies program). Stanley was someone any Minnesotan was, at most, two or three degrees of separation from actually knowing. But she had this in common with Bowie and Cole: We wish they could have enjoyed more time on this earth, but we grieve because our culture has lost their unique sliver of energy for great, important things.

And we grieve the most when we feel we’ve lost a part of ourselves. Natalie Cole’s personal struggles and the lovely legacy of her father Nat “King” underpin her music with our own sense of how difficult it is to live in the world and lose a parent. David Bowie, with his combination of ethereal presence and decades-spanning doggedness of invention, speaks to the triumph of each of our inner misfits, bestriding the world like a weird, skinny colossus bending reality to our own will.

In Tibetan Buddhism there’s a concept called a tulpa—essentially an apparition brought into reality through sheer mental concentration or devotion. On social media, each person’s post is a mirror tilted to indicate what they saw in that giant abstraction of a person, that tulpa. Of course the grief is genuine, and when it all pools together I can’t help but think that it is a fitting sendoff to whatever comes next, whatever paradise, void, or combination of the two. But as time passes, and the losses mount, we also sense a taste of the tulpa we are for others—what of their memories and aspirations we might have come to unknowingly represent. And we realize how little control we have over what they’ll think of us when we’re gone. 

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.