The passing of people we’ve never met can have a profound impact
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The passing of people we’ve never met can have a profound impact

Betty White’s passing on December 31 not only underscored the downer that was 2021 – we went into the year optimistic it would be better than 2020, didn’t we? – but capped a bad year for fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Last year also saw the passing of Ed Asner, 91, Cloris Leachman, 94, and Gavin MacLeod, 90, along with series writer Allan Burns and director Jay Sandrich.

As a slew of end-of-year reports informed us, they weren’t the only celebrities to pass away in 2021.

It was a bad year for those of us who grew up with reruns from the Sixties and Seventies. Michael Nesmith of The Monkees died at the age of 78. Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad died from colon cancer at the age of 81. Veteran character actor Michael Constantine died at 94. Eddie Mekka, Carmine Ragusa on Laverne & Shirley, was 69 when he died in November.

Fans of the ’80s show Night Court marked the passing of Charlie Robinson (court clerk Mac Robinson) and Markie Post (public defender Christine Sullivan).

The year saw the passing of Christopher Plummer, Hal Holbrook, Cicely Tyson, George Segal, Ned Beatty, Charles Grodin, Olympia Dukakis and Norm Macdonald.

Taking stock at year’s end is always tough. Those of us born in the TV age grew up with a wide social circle invented by Hollywood and beamed into homes round the clock. In many ways, we’re more attached to the people we see on TV than in those around us – our Friends are more real than our friends, in some instances. And when they die, either as actors or characters, the grief can be as real as if somebody close to you had passed on.

On the music front, the year saw the deaths of The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, Paddy Moloney, the founder of the Irish folk band the Chieftains and Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls.

Many of the passings from 2021 were news to me when the lists rolled out, often familiar faces without top-of-mind names, the likes of Art LaFleur (The Sandlot, Field of Dreams), William Smith (Any Which Way You Can, Rich Man, Poor Man), Norman Lloyd (St. Elsewhere, Dead Poets Society), Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development, Archer), Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies, Newhart) and Dean Stockwell (Married to the Mob, Quantum Leap).

While movies had launched the notion of celebrity, our attachment grew in leaps and bounds with television, which brought them into the intimate confines of our homes. The phenomenon is linked to the suburban growth that followed the war.

Whether you’re a fan or not, the passing of a celebrity is often still touching, says Ryerson University School of Creative Industries Prof. Cheryl Thompson in a school discourse. She notes we can develop a “second-order intimacy” with people we’ve never met.

“Whenever there’s a celebrity, you know a lot about these people, but you don’t really know who they are as people. There’s a certain closeness because they bring you in. They have interviews, they might be on social media so you really feel like you know them,” said Thompson, who teaches a course on celebrity as a form of mass media, CRI680: Celebrity. “Because we form these parasocial relationships, they’re second order levels of intimacy. And then, if it doesn’t get checked there could be a kind of worshipping that happens when these people die, it feels like you’ve lost a dear family member.”

Fellow Ryerson faculty member, sociology Prof. Paul Moore, notes that a personal connection to famous people is often forged in youth

“A lot of our pop culture and sports fandom starts in adolescence and follows us all the way into our adulthood,” Moore said. “So when a star dies, we’re often losing a little piece of our youth, a little piece of ourselves, with nostalgia that can deeply tap into our sense of mortality. It’s shaded by confronting how much we have aged ourselves and facing how that part of our lives has come to an end.”

Those ties to our youth do help explain why we mourn the passing of celebrities, notes Shira Gabriel, an associate professor at SUNY Buffalo, in a piece for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

“We might feel grief because of nostalgia.  According to Dr. Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton, people report being nostalgic for people who were important to them during their childhood or adolescence.   Through nostalgic reflection, these people become part of who we are.  So, when they pass away, we can feel like we lost a part of ourselves,” she writes.

Though we don’t know these people personally, that they’re gone from our lives hurts nonetheless.

“One reason we feel sad when bad things happen to celebrities is because they feel like our friends.  Dr. Melanie Green of SUNY Buffalo points out that people form parasocial bonds with celebrities. Parasocial bonds are ‘one-way’ relationships with celebrities; many people feel strongly connected to movie and television stars, popular musicians, news broadcasters, on-air meteorologists, and others even though no true interaction occurs. Believe it or not, parasocial bonds are actually pretty normal: many of us have them. Even though we know logically that celebrities are not really our ‘friends,’ because we see them so often and have so much access to information about them, they sometimes feel like our friends. That can be handy when they accomplish great things and we can feel proud of and connected to them.  But it also means that when they get sick or die we grieve them much like we would a real friend.”

In our increasingly isolated society – a trend long before the pandemic – people are less likely to have the kind of family bonds and even the close friendships of earlier generations. Canadian adults spend some 24 hours a week watching television, though the technology has changed dramatically. It’s no wonder, then, that we feel more connected to the people we spend the most time with: those we see on the screen.

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