Purple pain: why the deaths of Prince and Bowie cut us so deep

By Jill Stark
The Age
April 30, 2016
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Can we press pause on 2016? The ground feels unstable.

Only four months in and the losses continue to mount.

The deaths of music giants David Bowie and Prince have marked an ominous start to a year that has also seen the passing of esteemed actor Alan Rickman, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Harper Lee and renowned singer Natalie Cole.

Add to this the loss of Motorhead frontman Lemmy in December, and we are left to ponder whether God is recruiting for the mother of all music festivals.

This loss of iconic artists who have helped shape our world – and for some our sense of self – has led to an outpouring of global grief.

But the reaction to these deaths stretches beyond our culture’s obsession with celebrity. It speaks to something more basic, even primal.

“What these deaths do is punctuate our sense of mortality,” says Chris Hall, head of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement. “Death is the great leveller whether one is famous or not – it reminds us as human beings that we’ll die and that fame or riches isn’t any protection against that.”

When news of Prince’s sudden death came through on April 21, fans took to social media to share their shock and desolation. It was simply too much to comprehend so soon after the passing of Bowie.

Dressed in purple, ABC News Breakfast presenter Virginia Trioli cried on air as she reported the news. In a video that went viral, a high school teacher was comforted by his students as he broke down watching Purple Rain.

Pierz Newton-John, a faculty member at Melbourne’s School of Life, who teaches classes on how to face death, said this raw grief for a performer they had likely never met would have complex undertones.

“It’s often not really about the celebrity but the revivifying of other griefs that the person has experienced. It becomes an opportunity in a society where we don’t have much opportunity for public expression of grief, to mourn,” he said.

“In our culture we have a very brief window to grieve in – the funeral and maybe a couple of weeks – and then you’re expected to get on with it. We don’t have black armbands or black mourning garb or some sort of signifier that we’re in mourning, so a lot of people have unresolved grief.”

Newton-John points out that grief triggered by the passing of a celebrity is not necessarily related to a previous death but can be an emotional response to a broader sense of loss – a longing for youth, the end of a relationship or mourning lapsed friendships.

Music’s connection to a certain time and place in our lives often evokes strong memories and emotions. When a performer from that era dies, the reaction can be visceral.

“I encourage people to delve into what is it that they’re really grieving at a deeper level and understand that grief is part of living. The very fact of loving means that we’re exposed to the necessity of grieving, and the only way not to grieve is not to love. We need to really embrace our sadness and not suppress or reject it.”

The public way we live our lives has caused a seismic shift in how the community mourns, with social media at the centre of the change.

Many celebrities are active on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat and are inserted into our personal news feeds, creating a sense of connection that makes a sudden loss even more profound.

Indeed, the confirmation of Bowie’s death came from his son via Twitter, giving us direct and instant access to the family’s pain.

Dr Margaret Gibson, an expert in digital mourning and commemorative culture, from Griffiths University, said the collective nature of grief online can impact on how keenly we feel the loss.

“We can see ourselves mourning with others now in ways we couldn’t in the past. Social media creates a form of intimacy and a sense of ownership. It’s coming through all our personal networks and people are talking about it. There’s this sense that there is literally a proximity to our own personal lives that creates this direct hit to our self.”

But perhaps the strong response to these recent deaths can be partly explained by their frequency.

The BBC’s obituary editor noted there had been a sharp increase in significant deaths in 2016 – 24 from January to March alone compared with just five in the same time period last year. He puts this down to the ageing Baby Boomers who make up a significant proportion of the population.

However,Time magazine contradicted this, saying their archive showed the number of entertainer deaths was 21 in the first three months of the year compared with 24 last year.

Perhaps the discrepancy reflects different concepts of what constitutes celebrity. Could it be that at a time when anyone with a smartphone can be rocketed to fame we mourn more acutely those who we deem truly worthy of the title “legend”?

The internet has been abuzz with memes telling us to put Springsteen under 24-hour police protection, while lamenting the robust state of Kanye or Bieber’s health.

Pop culture expert Lauren Rosewarne from the University of Melbourne said duration of career should not determine our level of respect.

“Someone like Justin Bieber has always been easy pickings because he’s considered youth culture, but we have this amazing ability to forget that the Beatles were also youth culture. It’s just that the passing of time has given the Beatles legitimacy in the way that Justin Bieber doesn’t have.”

Patrick Donovan, chief executive of Music Victoria, said the loss of Prince has been felt deeply in music-mad Melbourne, where the singer played one of his last shows in an intimate gig in February. Likewise, when Bowie died the grief was immense, with fans converging that night on rock venue Cherry Bar.

“These singers provide the soundtrack to our lives. All through the different stages in your life these artists are there for you and you change as they change. They are so important to us that you want to go and spend that time grieving with other fans. It’s like we knew these people.”