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Most of us do a bang-up job of avoiding the taboo topic of death; it would seem as though denial is our default setting when it comes to discussions involving the Grim Reaper. But what happens when death barges in on our otherwise “let’s not talk about it” way of being? What happens when a celebrity passes away—like Barbara Walters on December 30, 2022—and the news of their death is on heavy rotation as “breaking news” in virtually every media outlet?
Experiencing cultural representations of the death of significant others—people with any level of notoriety—can actually help us mediate our own relationship with mortality (Stone, 2012). With death so often packaged as infotainment for popular consumption in the media, these mortality moments provide us ample and unique opportunities to informally contemplate our own death.
Is it possible for celebrity passings to counterintuitively wake us up to the lives we long to be living?
Consider your own legacy
Your death might not result in the televised tributes and prolific obituaries that well-known people garner when they die, and yet an opportunity still exists to reflect on the legacy that you want to leave behind you. Defined as the transmission of personal values (Hunter, 2008), legacy reflects a universal desire to pass on a meaningful part of oneself.
How would you be remembered if you passed away today, and what changes might you need to make to your life to ensure you’re living in accordance with the values that you cherish?
Consider Erik Erikson’s (1963) seventh stage in his theory of psychosocial development, known as generativity versus stagnation. Middle-aged adults tend to question how they can best put their proverbial dent in the world.
Would you say you are leaning towards generativity (connecting and committing to others, mentoring/ sharing wisdom, giving back to society) or veering towards stagnation (failing to contribute, living a self-centered existence)?
We might not have the same platform as Barbara Walters did to pave the way for women in journalism, for example, or the same opportunities as Brazilian soccer legend Pele (who passed away on December 29, 2022) to earn the International Peace Award, but we can look to well-known figures as inspiration for legacy development.
Bursting the bubble of “specialness”
Existential psychologist Irvin Yalom (2002) wrote about the most common way we deny the idea of death—through the concept of personal specialness: The “conviction that we are exempt from biological necessity and that life will not deal with us in the same harsh way it deals with everyone else” is as irrational as it is predictable.
Bad things happen to other people, and we find ourselves startled when they happen to us. Other people have their cars stolen, not us. Other people get glaucoma, not us. Other people age and ultimately breathe their last breaths, but we somehow think we’ll dodge the death bullet. Intellectually we know the concept of specialness is silly, yet we cling to the idea that we are exceptional and therefore exempt from experiences all those unfortunate other people must endure.
When famous people we have anointed as “ultra-special” die, it tends to wake us up to the limitations of being human and the limitations of our perishable bodies. If celebrities who breathe rarified air can die, then the dawning awareness of our own mortality becomes that much more salient. While our natural response to mortality salience is to increase our self-protective motivations and fiercely adhere to our worldviews (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Simon, & Breus, 1994), we have an opportunity to snap to attention and consciously accept our ephemerality when beloved personalities die.
While adept at hiding from death, we sometimes let denial take a detour. The death-related travel phenomenon known as dark tourism (Lennon & Continuum, 2002) highlights our voyeuristic fascination with “the big sleep.” People travel to far-flung places to visit macabre attractions—like Holocaust sites, world war battlefields, and 9/11 memorials. Celebrity and cemetery tourism are segments of dark tourism (Soligo & Dickens, 2020), where travelers seek out famous landmarks and grave sites—like visiting the location where J.F. Kennedy was shot, visiting Elvis Presley’s gravesite (along with 60,000 other fans each year; Simpson, 2019), and visiting the site of James Dean’s fatal car crash.
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This passive allowance of the macabre into our lives signals our willingness to move beyond denial and explore what death might have in store for us. Shifting from a denial of death to an acceptance of our albeit disconcerting mortality opens up possibilities to not just reduce anxiety but to redefine death as a tool to live life more vitally (Yalom, 2008).
Count your Mondays
Celebrity deaths can also spark an awareness of temporal scarcity—the notion that helps us value temporary and rare things, like our lives (Kim, Zauberman, & Bettman, 2011).
Said simply, “life becomes valued to the extent we recognize its potential unavailability” (Janoff-Bulman, 2004, p. 33). Rather than seeing death as a threat that can ignite unconscious defenses, the encouragement is to see it as a reminder that our lives are commodities that are subject to loss (without exception); this scarcity makes life, by definition, more valuable.
Study results show that reminders of death essentially translate into immediate reminders of life, that it is a scarce and valuable “asset” worth preserving (King, Hicks, & Abdelkhalik, 2009). Researchers have found that by enhancing the value of our lives—by tapping into the scarcity of our time—death awareness is heightened in a productive way that acts as an impetus to create more meaning.
With an average life expectancy of 80 years, we get roughly 4,000 weeks to live. Many recently deceased celebrities lived beyond 4,000 weeks (Barbara Walters exceeded 4,800 and Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away on September 8, 2022, reached almost 5,000), but just as many fall short of the average (actress Anne Heche reached only 2,750 weeks after passing away on August 12, 2022, and singer Aaron Carter died on November 5, 2022, after a mere 1,760 weeks). Notable deaths within our own age range can put an even finer point on our finite existence.
Contemplating death, especially with the promoting of a celebrity passing, provides an opportunity for us to make more powerful choices and lead intentional lives until we’re reached our very final week.
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