SCIENCE

Why We Grieve The Loss Of Cultural Icons

That sense of loss is real and rational.
Personal notes and tributes to the British rock icon David Bowie in Berlin on January 14, 2016.
Personal notes and tributes to the British rock icon David Bowie in Berlin on January 14, 2016.

The world lost two of its greatest performers this week: legendary rock star David Bowie and British actor Alan Rickman.

Bowie and Rickman both succumbed to cancer at the age of 69, leaving behind a world in mourning for the loss of two brilliant and beloved creative minds. 

The outpouring of grief, while fresh in its emotional intensity, after the death of a celebrity follows a familiar pattern. After the 2014 deaths of beloved actors Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the public also displayed shock, grief and a deep sense of loss. 

Why do we grieve so much over artists -- over people we've never even met before? One viral tweet pretty much summed it up:

Although we don't know these iconic performers and view them from a distance, many of us feel a deep sense of connection to them nonetheless.

As the tweet suggests, great creative minds dig into their own souls to bring a bit of their inner selves to the outer world. As we glimpse a piece of their true selves, we are able to see parts of ourselves reflected back. 

In the many remembrances of Bowie, a common theme is how people felt that he gave them permission to be themselves, to be outsiders, as he often expressed individuality in his work. In Rickman, so many people found a lovable villain in his portrayals of the deep complexity of the human condition, such as in his fictional Harry Potter character, Professor Snape. 

The sense of loss, for some, can run very deep. 

"A hole has been ripped in the universe and we are lost, and we will be for a good while yet," journalist Suzanne Moore wrote in a tribute to Bowie published in the Guardian. "This grief is serious and rational," she added.

These feelings are rational, because we develop such strong bonds with public figures like Bowie and Rickman. 

"We're affected differently by different people in our lives dying," Dr. Mary Frances O'Connor, a psychologist and grief specialist at the University of Arizona, told The Huffington Post. "When someone dies, we often lose a tiny piece of our own identity. It's your own identity that's shifted as well as losing the person themselves."

This applies to cultural icons, too. "People feel like they lost the piece of their identify that David Bowie represented," O'Connor said. 

For some people, there can also be a sense of losing a period of their lives that the artist represented -- nights spent in a college dorm room listening to "Space Oddity," or childhood memories of watching the "Harry Potter" films, according to O'Connor. 

Jonathan Franzen shed light on the strength and intensity of this connection in a 2011 New Yorker essay about his friend and beloved literary genius David Foster Wallace after the novelist killed himself. Franzen wrote: 

The curious thing about David’s fiction ... is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent that each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island -- and I think it’s approximately correct to say that his most susceptible readers are ones familiar with the socially and spiritually isolating effects of addiction or compulsion or depression -- we gratefully seized on each new dispatch from that farthest-away island which was David ... he gave us the worst of himself ... however, this very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it."

Those of us who seized on "dispatches" from Bowie and Rickman -- from empowering anthems like "Heroes" and "Rebel, Rebel" to loveable villains like Professor Snape and Hans Gruber -- learned a little more about who we are.

While we grieve them, we'll mourn for the little piece of ourselves that's been lost, too.