Don’t dictate who and how we should mourn

The latest high-profile celebrity death, that of Whitney Houston, has divided opinion.

While shrines were set up, fans were inconsolable and radio stations played her over-embellished warblings wall-to-wall for days, others furiously said 'so what?' For them it was 'just the death of one woman', aggravated by the fact that she had a history of drug abuse and 'probably brought it on herself '.

Meanwhile, they pointed out, more than 300 prisoners died in a fire in Honduras, while scores of people were blown up in the latest Baghdad suicide bombings.

So why should Whitney Houston's death dominate the front pages and TV headlines? For me, it stirred mixed memories.

I had my first slow dance with a girl at my mate Stumpy's house to the sound of a Whitney Houston song. When you are 14, the slow dance is the ultimate victory, however horrific the tune. Although I'd have preferred Led Zeppelin, beggars can't be choosers.

But Ms Houston blotted her copybook by ruining the winter of 1992/3. Her squealing cover of I Will Always Love You clung to the top spot in the charts for 10 weeks, was played everywhere and left this young rock and grunge fan nursing a grudge.

The same division of opinion that I mentioned earlier arose when Amy Winehouse died. Some people were devastated at her loss, while others railed at 'all the fuss' over a woman who had diced with death by taking drugs.

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Back in 1997, when Diana, Princess of Wales died, I found the outpouring of public grief disturbing. I could not understand how so many people could become so hysterical about someone they did not know.

But, contrary to what my wife and children would tell you, I'm softening, as I realise that one person's devastating tragedy will always be another's 'so what?'

The reality is that most of us are more interested in something when we can connect with it.

So the death of Whitney Houston has an impact on a generation of people who grew up listening to – or reluctantly hearing – her music. Ditto Amy Winehouse. And the death of Diana, Princess of Wales touched millions because her public profile for the previous 17 years made her feel like public property.

Ever the hypocrite, having in the past railed against such reactions, I admit I was rocked to the core when Queen's Freddie Mercury and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain died, and was very upset when the Wales manager Gary Speed committed suicide last year. They all contributed pages to the diary of my life, therefore their loss touched me.

Try as I might, I cannot become as exercised about multiple deaths in a bus crash in Bolivia or a mudslide in Mongolia.

Our reaction to death is not a mathematical equation: it does not increase according to how many people have died, nor how much they deserved to continue living.

Thankfully, although control freaks at both ends of the political spectrum would love to change it, we are not robots, programmed to mourn when commanded, on a sliding scale of intensity determined by others. If you want that, go and live in North Korea.

Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, people will continue to have apparently irrational outbreaks of grief when distant celebrities breathe their last. Like it or not, it's how they feel. So leave them in peace with their grief.

•This article was first published on February 21, 2012.