Matthew Perry: Friends, why do celebrity deaths hit us hard?

The sudden demise of beloved Friends star Matthew Perry at 54 reminds us how hard celebrity deaths can hit us.
Matthew Perry death
The death of Friends star Matthew Perry feels deeply personal to fans across the world. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Radhika Bhirani Updated: 30 Oct 2023, 01:24 am IST
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We don’t really know them, yet we feel we know them enough to grieve when they leave. Such is the power of celebrities, and the artistry of art itself. You feel so deeply connected that a celebrity death can tug at your heartstrings as much as–or even more–than when you may lose a relative, friend or acquaintance. That’s how bereaved millions of fans of “Friends” star Matthew Perry have felt after his sudden demise reportedly due to drowning in a bathtub. To many, it felt like saying goodbye to a dear friend – a friend who gave them reasons to laugh.

Matthew Perry was a Canadian and American actor who found global fandom as Chandler Bing, the king of sarcasm and quick wit on sitcom ‘Friends’. The show ran from 1994 to 2004, but the love for it has transcended years and generations. Perry’s untimely and unexpected death at the age of 54 stirred up childhood memories for fans who grew up watching the show and loving Chandler Bing. Besides his onscreen persona, the actor let his fans in on the deepest secrets of his life through his 2022 memoir, ‘Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing’. He made candid confessions about his troubled family life, his addiction problems, spending millions to stay sober and his relationships. In his lifetime, he made sure his fans know the human behind the star. That also makes his loss feel more personal.

This can happen whenever a person is truly celebrated for tugging at people’s heartstrings, leaving an impact and making them laugh and cry through their work. It could be actors, singers, sportspersons or national leaders. It almost reminds me of a beautiful and poignant tweet that a friend wrote when India’s ‘Disco King’ Bappi Lahiri passed away. “Mourning is a celebration,” she wrote, sharing her little way of dealing with a celebrity death.

On Instagram, I came across a moving post by Randi Pearlman Wolfson, who identifies herself as a grief educator. She recounts that during the Covid-19 lockdown, when finding joy became difficult, she turned to ‘Friends’ for hours. It soothed her fidgety heart with its laughter and silliness.

She writes, “Many of you are feeling devastated by the death of Matthew Perry. Even in the midst of wars and shootings, and rising prices. Perhaps it’s because of these very things and because he was familiar and funny. We expect our TV friends to just always be there, don’t we? Matthew Perry struggled in the open, making him human and familiar in a different way as well. And so, if his death leaves you feeling so very sad, and you notice a little hole in your heart where laughter was living, know that you are not alone.”

On that note, check out a scene from ‘Friends’, featuring Matthew Perry.


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A post shared by Friends (@friends)

Why do celebrity deaths feel personal?

Ever wondered why we feel so deeply moved when celebrities die? You don’t have a personal connection with them, and yet their loss feels so personal. Isn’t it?

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Experts say it’s natural for people to react the way they do considering the attachment they develop with celebrities. Plus, it shakes us and wakes up to the harsh yet honest reality about the fragility of life. It’s like a reminder to live your every present moment like your last one.

Eminent psychiatrist Dr Samir Parikh tells Health Shots that a celebrity’s nature and nature of work play a significant role in the direct or indirect impact that their demise could have on people.

Why do we feel grief when a celebrity dies?

Grief, he says, is simply about attachment. This is why it feels so personal.

“It is about relatedness, and almost like an extension of your being. It’s similar to the what you may feel with the loss of a family member, because it is a loss related to memories and moments (related to movies, shows, songs, matches or milestones). It is about adulation and admiration,” explains Dr Parikh, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.

According to clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Narendra Kinger, “We identify with celebrities as they are in the public eye, and the familiarity makes us believe that they are close to us. The psychological identification and the physical ‘virtual’ familiarity make us partake in their daily life as if they were an extension of our ‘real selves’. Hence, when a celebrity dies, we feel as if someone close to us has died, and so we mourn.”

In India, the feeling was familiar for many when Rajesh Khanna, Sridevi, Irrfan Khan, Rishi Kapoor, Bappi Lahiri, KK and more recently, former cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi passed away. Their demise left a lump in the throat– not just because they were stars, but because their rich body of work touched the right chords.

Irrfan Khan
Irrfan Khan’s death in 2020 continues to evoke emotions. Image courtesy: Instagram | Irrfan

Forget closer home, even the death of Princess Diana, singing stars Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and cricketers Shane Warne and Andrew Symonds, hit us hard.

Also read: Ridden with grief? A psychiatrist reveals how it can affect your health

What is the psychology behind mourning a celebrity’s death?

“The psychological principle is of ‘identification’ and ‘internalization’,” explained Kinger, the founder of Talk to Me. By that, he means that these popular personalities become a part of our personalities and life. And therefore, even our reactions are a result of how we tend to make them a part of “our reality”, despite “not being a part of their reality”.

Nevertheless, one can’t ignore how the media blitz and bombardment, social media hype, as well as the 24-hour ‘breaking news’ cycle, spurs a sense of a deeper attachment.

“In the boredom and routine of our own lives, it is common for the common person to be impacted. To come to terms, we need to get more out of our own lives than be invested in them. We have to be aware of our own reality,” Kinger tells Health Shots.

Sometimes, fans’ response to their idol’s death can be extreme.

“The possible extremes to celebrity deaths which we have witnessed in the past are self-immolation, self-harm, attempts to commit or suicides, etc,” Kinger said.

He ain’t bluffing. As per news reports, when singer Sidhu Moose Wala was brutally murdered, a 19-year-old fan tried to commit suicide by drinking phenyl.

Sidhu Moose Wala death
The 28-year-old Punjabi singer had a massive fan following. Image courtesy: Instagram | Sidhu Moose Wala

Does the nature of celebrity deaths impact the way people react?

It makes us wonder if the nature of a celebrity deaths also plays a role in the way people react? Dr Parikh agrees that the nature of death instills a different type of a thought process in a person who may be a fan of a celebrity.

But it needs to be understood that grief is an emotion that people feel depending on the “dynamics of their attachment” – be it when someone dies closer home, or in the celeb-verse.

How to get over celebrity deaths?

Well, nothing beats talking about it when it comes to coping with the grief of a celebrity death! Mourning is a celebration, didn’t my friend say it?

Dr Parikh agrees. “Talking to people who feel a similar way, who are able to identify with how you feel, is the best way to deal with the loss of a celebrity. Celebrate how they have touched your lives with memories and moments.”

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About the Author

Radhika Bhirani is a journalist with close to 15 years of experience in the Indian media industry. After writing extensively on health, lifestyle and entertainment, she leads the English content team at Health Shots. She has a special interest in writing on mental health and wellness. ...Read More

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