October 30, 2023

The One with the Final Goodbye: the Ripple Effect of Celebrity Loss.

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As I awake on the morning of 29th October 2023, I am shocked and saddened by the news that 28th October 2023 was “The Last One” for actor Matthew Perry otherwise known as Chandler Bing in the iconic series of Friends.

For him, yesterday was the one with the final goodbye.

As humans, we need to make sense of things, and speculation is already abound as to the cause of his death. Headlines state “drowned at his home.” The last post on his Instagram feed six days ago shows him in the corner of his hot tub/ pool, perhaps the safest place, supported either side. He is facing away from the lights of the city wearing headphones—to shut the world out? Held in the shadows of the darkness yet visible by the moonlight, his caption reads, “Oh, so warm water swirling around makes you feel good? I’m Mattman.” But did he feel good? Or is his question rhetorical?

People wonder in comments as to whether this tragedy was an accident or suicide. His struggles were no secret, with him shining light on his own darkness, through the pages of his memoir last year. His book, Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, gave an authentic account of his inner world. 

After parental divorce, he speaks of travelling alone as a minor to see his father and feeling an outsider in his own family. An early start such as this can predispose us to feeling we have to cope with everything ourselves and the world can feel unsafe, without support either side. Patterns of insecurity in attachment to self, the world, and others emerges.

Alcohol became his self-medication in his teenage years and then opiates. An escape and numbing to inner turmoil. He told of relationships where he dumped others before they dumped him. Again, a sign of attachment insecurity and a life led by fear of rejection and avoidance. A natural survival adaptation to an early insecure start that life can bring to many people.

He tried to fill the missing piece with fame but concluded with the insight, “I think you actually have to have all of your dreams come true to realise they are the wrong dreams.” This statement sums up how our survival mechanisms need to create conditioned adaptations to survive the world into which we are born, until finally we begin to strip back those layers, explore our deep unconscious shadows, and reveal the true authentic self. Were his revelations too overwhelming for him? It is important when we choose to tell our story, and we need to feel safe enough to do this.

In reality, we simply do not know what went on for him. The inner world of another is only as accessible as they allow it to be to us. More so, for those we have close relationships with. However, we often think we do know, and we want to know when something tragic happens to a celebrity. With social media and the speed that news travels, there is even more profound psychological impact of such losses. There are shared memories and joint expressions of loss flooding the comments on posts. It can also feel like a closing of a chapter in our lives, connecting us to our own mortality.

One concept that helps explain the intense mourning experienced after a celebrity’s death is parasocial relationships. These are one-sided relationships formed when individuals develop a connection with a celebrity through media consumption. Viewers develop a sense of familiarity and attachment to the celebrity, even though there is no real-life interaction. This sense of connection can intensify the emotional impact of the celebrity’s death and contribute to the mourning process.

With Matthew Perry especially, he felt like a friend to many, despite seeming to experience great loneliness himself. The “Friends” series began with the pilot episode, which was broadcast on September 22, 1994. The series finished its 10-season run on May 6, 2004, with 236 episodes. On average, they are 22–23 minutes long, for a 30-minute time slot including commercial breaks. That’s a lot of time he has entered the homes of many, not counting reruns and box-set binges. He’s taken me through two marriages and two sets of early labour pains. Not to forget many pizza and wine nights with some of my closest friends.

Excessive identification and idealisation of celebrities can further contribute to the emotional impact of their deaths. When a loved celebrity dies, it can trigger a sense of loss and grief in fans who have developed strong parasocial bonds with them. These bonds may be based on admiration, inspiration, or a shared sense of identity. This can disrupt the sense of stability and comfort that the parasocial relationship provided, leading to feelings of emptiness and sadness.

When we see a familiar face on our screens regularly, it creates a sense of connection and familiarity. We become invested in the characters’ lives, rooting for them, and forming emotional attachments. The death of someone we have grown to love can evoke a unique form of nostalgia and loyalty. It can feel like losing a friend or a member of our own family. It disrupts the emotional connection that viewers have developed over time. Additionally, increased discussion and misinformation following a celebrity death, especially if it is suicide (which we do not know yet for Matthew Perry) can amplify feelings of loss and contribute to suicide contagion, particularly among vulnerable individuals.

Research has shown that there is an increased risk of suicide following the suicide of a well-known celebrity. This phenomenon, known as suicide contagion or the Werther effect, occurs when media coverage of a celebrity suicide leads to an increase in suicide rates among the general population. It is important for media outlets to report responsibly and avoid sensationalising for these reasons.

The irony of the death of someone who dedicated their life to making others feel joy, while secretly battling their own demons, is a tragic reminder of the complexities we often overlook in people’s lives. It is a reminder that appearances can be deceiving, and the infectious smiles they paint on the faces of others did not reflect their inner world. It serves as a poignant lesson that we must always strive to look beyond the surface, to truly understand and support one another, for we never truly know the battles others are fighting within themselves.

In this case, emotional attachment is not only to the actor but also to the part they played. The world has already had to learn to say goodbye to Chandler Bing with the ending of the series, and now the loss of the true man behind the persona has to be processed. Perhaps processing the loss of the true man behind the persona is a projection of Matthew Perry’s own insurmountable obstacle.

My heart goes out to all impacted by his loss.


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