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Why Do Some Celebrity Deaths Impact Us More Than Others?

A Personal Perspective: Feeling grief when a notable public figure passes.

Gregg McBride
Source: Gregg McBride

I was working to meet a writing deadline when my phone started blowing up with news alerts on the afternoon of Monday, August 8th. While I have learned to temper my reaction when looking at what are usually politics-related headlines, I verbally exclaimed, “No!” when I read that singer, actor, and philanthropist Olivia Newton-John had passed away.

It was about this moment that I began receiving what ended up being dozens of texts and emails from friends checking on me—all of whom were aware of the special place in my heart Newton-John occupied. While I was never close with her, I did have the good fortune of meeting her on multiple occasions and, one time, even got to buy her a drink at an Australia celebration event. Yet I know being a self-professed superfan is a moniker I share with millions.

When people think of timeless films from the last century, they don’t immediately mention Grease as one of them. And yet it’s a movie that so many of us have in common—a collective cinematic experience that has now spanned decades and touched countless lives (many of whom, like me, wished life was more like a musical). While the soundtrack and irresistible charm of the film speak for themselves, Newton-John’s portrayal of an outsider who’s finding her way through the halls of Rydell High was something many of us could relate to. At some point, we all were or are trying to find our way in life. And if we could put a fun transformation and a catchy song in the face of that angst, why not?

For me, Newton-John represented more than an icon that lay the audio-meets-visual foreground for artists like Madonna and even Beyoncé. As an extremely overweight, closeted child growing up on military bases overseas, her image and music proved to be somewhat of a touchstone—something to look to that I could both idolize and aspire to. Oh, how I longed to fit in. And Newton-John’s lust for life (and even actual lust in her hit song and video Physical) proved to be inspirational to me.

More than that, I was also a child of extreme parental abuse from both my mother and father. I look back on that time in my life and wonder how my sister and I survived those years of acute neglect and horrific mistreatment. Somehow, our nearly worn-out videocassette copies of Grease and Xanadu proved to be respites during many storms.

There were countless times my sister and I weren't sure how we were going to process or even survive the parent-induced torture we were experiencing. But we would often find some calm by immersing ourselves in the neon-infused fortress of Xanadu. During that movie’s running time, we were safe. We were at peace. We were free to be children.

I wonder if these memories are why I was hit so hard by Newton-John’s passing. Or perhaps it was because she was a well-known philanthropist who was singing about environmental causes as far back as the 1980s, a tireless advocate for animals, and during her 30-year bout with cancer, became a beacon of light for others dealing with the disease (including my own mother-in-law, who passed as a result of her own cancer journey several years ago).

I admit I initially questioned my being in a state of mourning this past week. After all, despite a lifetime of fandom and having curated many playlists that Newton-John’s music is still a part of, I wasn’t close with her. My thoughts turn to her husband and daughter, both of whom I’ve also met and been able to spend time with. While I can’t imagine the level of grief they’re feeling, I suppose it’s fair to partake in their emotions in a reverent way. After all, they were generous enough to share their wife and mother with the rest of us—even during her final months.

Gregg McBride
Source: Gregg McBride

As I mourned, I made it my mission to find something positive to take from it all. Seeing actor Jane Seymour talk about her friendship with Newton-John on the Today show helped with that. Seymour spoke of Newton-John’s capacity to step outside herself, never complain, and always inquire about others—no matter what she happened to be going through.

So even after she’s left this world, there’s great inspiration waiting to be found in the celebrity who, in many ways, helped me survive my youth. A clear reason why, along with everyone else’s reasons for being hopelessly devoted to her, Newton-John, although gone, will never be forgotten.

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