Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Hardest Thing About Brittany Murphy's Death

Actress Brittany Murphy, whom you may have seen in "8 Mile" or "Clueless" or heard as the voice of Gloria in "Happy Feet," died today at the age of 32.  She went into cardiac arrest at her home and was pronounced dead at the hospital.  The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has said that foul play is not suspected, her death appears to be natural, and they are looking into her medical history and "some other issues."  The blogosphere and the entertainment media are buzzing with speculation, ranging from complications from diabetes, to anorexia, to drug use.  Various references to Murphy have been in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter all day.

What makes us so fascinated with the lives and deaths of celebrities? Certainly we can all agree that healthy 32 year olds don't often drop dead of cardiac arrest, but why are we more interested in Brittany Murphy than we would be in the death of some random resident of Los Angeles whom we've never heard of?

Part of the issue is that we are, in some sense, told by the media that we're supposed to care.  If you are a media outlet that covers celebrities, you're obviously going to cover this in a big way.  You're going to talk about Brittany Murphy as though you know everything there is to know, or at least are talking to people who do, and as though nothing is more important than finding out what happened to her.  We, the viewers and readers of this, think, "This must be important because they are covering it so much."

There is more to it, however.  If you go purely by name recognition, most celebrities have more people who "know of them" than the average citizen.  When someone whose name you know dies, it piques your interest, and so we pay attention to the death of celebrities.  When someone we think of as someone we "know" dies, we want to know what happened both because we are upset and also because we want to make sure it isn't something that might happen to us.  Celebrities offer us the opportunity to explore traumatic death with a minimum of grief, from a safe distance.

The danger, however, is that there is a fine line between taking interest in the circumstances of someone's death and feeling entitled to know everything about those circumstances.  Brittany Murphy may have died of anorexia, or drug use or diabetes, or she may have had a heart defect, or something else we don't even know about. The thing that is difficult for fans and celebrity reporters and bloggers to reckon with is, the answer is actually none of our business. 

The family and the coroner's office would be well within their rights not to release the information publicly.  Brittany Murphy may have made the choice to make her life public, but her family absolutely does not have to make her death public.  Lots of people probably don't want to hear that. Murphy was somebody's wife, somebody's daughter, and somebody's friend.  They have the right to deal with this horrible situation as they need to.  Taking care of us is really not their concern, and if that leaves us with unanswered questions, we're just going to have to live with that.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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