What Celebrity Deaths Can Teach Us About Life

The tragic suicides of cultural icons should give us something to think about.

Posted Jun 08, 2018

For anyone tuned in to celebrity news and pop culture, this week has been devastating. First, shockwaves rippled through the fashion industry following the announcement of designer Kate Spade’s death by suicide. Then, just a few days later, the world learned that renowned chef, author, and travel host, Anthony Bourdain, took his life as well. News networks and social media channels are buzzing with accounts of these celebrity deaths, and reactions appear to range from deep sadness to deep rage. Unable to reconcile their impressions of these two individuals with the realities of suicide, many people are left wondering how these famous, successful, materially wealthy icons could make the decision to take their own lives. Though all suicides leave a trail of desperate loss and confusion in their wake, celebrity suicides make a particularly palpable imprint.

In a culture that idolizes celebrities and holds fame and fortune high on the aspirational totem pole, the notion that someone who’s reached those heights would choose to end it all is incomprehensible. Looking out on the social media landscape, it’s plain to see the fractures in our understanding of this seeming paradox. While we demonstratively mourn celebrities like Spade and Bourdain, we continue to elevate and obsess over others. We use social media to express our sadness and confusion, and to send messages of support and hope to anyone who might be struggling with depression or contemplating suicide; yet this same media is at the root of a sense of disillusionment, discontentment, and disconnection plaguing our culture.

When it comes to suicide, there are always more questions than answers, and none of us—no matter how familiar with suicide or the person who carries it out may be—can fully comprehend the complex reasoning of someone who decides that life is no longer worth living. Our confusion and devastation can be catalysts for growth, helping us become a true source of support for anyone considering taking their lives, and allowing us to move more mindfully through the uncertainties of our own lives. But we have to be willing to listen and learn.

 Celebrities, no matter how rich or famous they may be, are bound by the human condition. Their external circumstances might be exceptional, but their internal experience is commonplace; they suffer and struggle like the rest of us. They’re subject to the same emotions we all feel, and no amount of money or success can exempt them from the realities of living a human experience with a human brain. Like the rest of us, celebrities are tasked with making meaning out of their lives and making their way through the challenges they encounter. And though we might be inclined to think that their material wealth and celebrity status make all of this easier for them, for some it may do just the opposite. Many celebrities have spoken openly about the sense of alienation and meaninglessness that can come from achieving such status. Being at the top, it turns out, can be extraordinarily lonely.

We may not be able to relate to the experience of being rich and famous, but we can certainly relate to being human. And the truth is, being human can be hard—especially if we feel we must bear the weight of that difficulty on our own, and even more so when we believe it will never get easier. Celebrity suicides are a stark reminder that when the inner world is in anguish, the material world stops mattering. Fame and wealth, our culture’s crowning achievements, can’t possibly be the panacea to all our worldly problems if people who attain them still choose to leave this world.

If we care to, we can learn from these tragic deaths and transmute our grief into action. We can translate our sadness and confusion into a solid sense of commitment—to be a source of compassion and understanding for anyone who suffers, and to shift out of the distorted lines of thinking which convince us that external rewards yield internal peace and happiness. While we post about our shock and sadness on social media, we can also remind ourselves to look up and connect with the people around us. We can create authentic connections and make our real-life relationships a priority. We can remind ourselves that we’re all in this confusing soup of life together. We can center ourselves in the understanding that suffering is universal, and that asking for support is a powerful act of strength through vulnerability.