a person mourning
Why do we feel grief for celebrities when we've never met them? Image: Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum.
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There’s no shame in being upset when a celebrity dies, it’s a natural reaction according to experts

2020 has been awful for many reasons, but one of the reasons was the sudden passing of several prominent celebrities and artists like Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Van Halen, and more. 

When people of their stature die, the whole world seems to stop for a moment and collectively cry and mourn. But most people haven’t met them — we’ve never sat down for coffee, worked with them, or were close to them in any way. So why does their passing hurt as much as it does?

Firstly, we need to look into what exactly is grief? Adam Koenig, a thanatology and psychology instructor at King’s University College, says that grief is a completely natural and personal experience that can be triggered by the death of someone you knew.

“It’s a normal, spontaneous, kind of personal response. It can be emotional, physical, spiritual, and it’s a very unique process to everyone, like a snowflake,” he said. “Whatever your reaction to the loss, it’s important just to be aware of it and notice it.”

Normally grief and mourning happen when someone close to you passes away, like a family member, friend, or pet. But celebrities don’t seem to necessarily fit into that mold, so why are we affected to the point where we feel grief? 

Koenig says it’s because we connect with them because we feel related to them, for whatever personal reason, and celebrities can then integrate themselves in our lives.

“Celebrities become a part of our lives in different ways. They share in some of the experiences we have. Say it’s the wedding song that you use for your first dance. That’s going to hold a significance in your life. So if that celebrity dies, that celebrity was connected to you in that special moment,” he said. “But it also helps us revisit different memories we may have had engaging with that celebrity in different ways.”

Jill K. Harrington, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, practicing psychologist and author, agrees with this. 

“Me personally, I love the band U2. I can go back and remember certain parts of my life and songs that have influenced my beliefs and values and what it really meant to me,” she said. “So I think we can connect to celebrities and they can change our lives because they’re influencers, and they influence us.”

She also brings up the recent passing of Chadwick Boseman and the effect his death had specifically on BIPOC communities. 

“It was a greater sense and a deeper sense of loss in the Black and brown communities. So there were people who really enjoyed the superhero films that were fans, and then people who really saw what Black Panther meant to those communities. So there was a deeper sense of loss for those who viewed him that way.” 

The impact and representation of Black Panther are not amiss, and for many members of BIPOC communities seeing someone like Boseman in such a prominent and superhero role helped them feel secure and validated in their cultural identity.

But Harrington emphasizes that it can also be because influencers and celebrities help us with our own individual sense of identity. “There could be a great sense of grief in your own identity, because you’ll never be influenced by that person again,” she said.

This sentiment is echoed by Robert Neimeyer, the director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition

“What we often lose is some aspect of ourselves, that we yearned for that they symbolized, an ideal aspect of ourselves. Or they’re someone we sense would understand our struggles in a way others can’t,” he said. 

All three all agree that the media plays an important role in highlighting celebrities, but especially in creating what they call a parasocial relationship. Where between the audience and the celebrity, one party is very invested while the other is unaware of their existence. 

Neimeyer says that while celebrities may have an understanding of their overall reach, individuals become lost in the crowd. 

“In a relationship shaped strongly by the media, we often have an idealized relationship, and one that is highly relatable for us,” he said. “They may play a role in our lives, but we are simply part of an anonymous fan base. Collectively, we play an important role, but individually we may be utterly insignificant.”

So how do people grieve these relationships? While there are many ways, the common one is an outpouring of sentiments on social media.

But Koenig noticed another type of expression of grief in the form of commodification and buying things related to the artist. He points to Kobe Bryant’s Nike line being sold out very soon after news of his death broke. 

“It’s kind of a way to continue the bond with that celebrity,” he said. “If I buy Kobe Bryant shoes and I wear them, I can feel connected. When I feel sad, I know I got Kobe’s shoes and it helps me feel a bit better and continue the bond with him.”

While grieving online has grown in popularity over the years, there is still a stigma about grieving over a celebrity death. Koenig and Harrington call this disenfranchisement, where people invalidate a person’s want or need to grieve. 

“We don’t socially, help or validate that loss. So people feel very invalidated and disconnected, so they shut down their feelings very quickly,” Harrington said. 

Neimeyer agrees, saying these reactions can cause a person to feel like they’re wrong for having a reaction, and deprives us of the social situations we need in order to get through the grieving period.

“We as human beings are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence,” he said. “When we’re told that our grief doesn’t matter or it’s trivial or bizarre or we’re wrong for having it, it doesn’t make the grief go away but it just makes us go away. We avoid facing those interactions, and we deprive ourselves of those social resources that we often need to get through this experience.”

And this can hit even harder if the death was more sudden or traumatic, such as Kobe Bryant’s death. “We tend to view these people as larger than life, but we also view these people as larger than death,” Neimeyer said.

It may seem silly or unimportant to be upset or saddened by the passing of a celebrity, but it’s important to be able to work through the feelings of sadness and validate your feelings. All three professionals agree that finding ways to honour and remember them is helpful in order to re-validate your emotions and commemorate the personal connection you may have felt to that person.

Koenig says that finding a space or a community to share your feelings in a safe environment is important, and creative outlets can also be helpful, like art or music. Koenig recommends finding online communities as well like Facebook memorial pages or reaching out to friends that felt similarly.

But in some cases people can feel stuck in their grief, according to Koenig. Koenig and Neimeyer state that if a celebrity’s death is affecting you after six months, it should start triggering warning bells. If this begins to happen, it’s important to go and seek help. 

There are grief counselling services in Ottawa that can help process these feelings, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, U of O’s counselling services, and Crisis Services Canada. If feelings of depression, anxiety, or other severe mental health issues are causing you to think of self-harm, call 1-833-456-4566 to get in contact with Canada Suicide Prevention Service.