Celebrity Grief: The Impact of the Death of Chadwick Boseman

A disenfranchised loss.

Posted Sep 03, 2020

Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock
Source: Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

With the startling and sad news of Chadwick Boseman's death this past week, I reached out for a team interview with Dr. Jill Harrington, lead editor of the upcoming book, Superhero Grief: The Transformative Power of Loss, published by Routledge, and Dr. Tashel Bordere, lead author of the chapter, “Black Panther: Exploring Grief, Ancestral Connection and the Duty to Carry-On.”

Can you grieve a celebrity you don’t know personally?

Dr. Jill Harrington: Yes, when a celebrity who holds significant meaning to us dies, we have the capacity to grieve. We call this Celebrity Grief, and it is often dismissed because of a pervasive societal misconception that you cannot grieve someone you did not personally know. This myth contributes significantly to feelings of disenfranchised grief — a loss that is not socially sanctioned (Doka, 1989). As thanatologists, we know this is in direct contradiction to our understandings of loss, grief, and bereavement.

Bowlby’s (1969) pioneering work on attachment theory has taught us that from birth, we are born with survival instincts to attach to others — to secure a safe base in which we can explore the world and ourselves. Bereavement and the accompanying feelings of grief are the distress we experience as we are confronted with permanent separation by death from those who hold significant meaning to us. We grieve those we are attached to, so our grief is born from a sense of attachment.

Celebrity deaths can hit us hard because of the symbolic, meaningful connections we make with them. These one-sided para-social attachments, experienced without distortion, are a normative psychological connection. We develop perceived relationships with celebrities by our love of their works, talents, presence, causes, and public personalities; this strengthens our connection and identification with them. So, grief is the pain that honors their significance in our lives as we learn to adapt to their loss — including the loss of their present and future lives and work.

How might the death of an actor who plays a superhero affect us?

JH:

  • Sudden and/or violent deaths shock us. Because of his right to privately cope with a life-threatening illness, Chadwick Boseman’s death may be experienced similarly to those who are bereaved by a sudden, unexpected death — feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, confusion, overwhelming sadness, and sometimes trauma symptoms.
  • Orients us to reality — reminding us that superstars are not superhuman. Their human vulnerability reminds us of our own impermanence and can awaken our sense of mortality.  The death of a beloved superhero actor is a teachable moment; that even fictional superheroes, like Black Panther, with all his powers, could not stop the deaths of his family members. He grieved and transformed his pain into a positive purpose.
  • Trigger our own losses along with losses associated with the meaning, purpose, and value this celebrity brought to their lives, their/our identity, and society as a whole.
  • Superhero actors can have broad influence across societies, cultures, and generations, so the grief of their loss can be felt collectively; therefore, can be shared and supported collectively. For some communities, though, when actors represent an iconic superhero, they may experience their death with a different and much deeper sense of loss.

How do you think Chadwick Boseman’s death has impacted Communities of Color?

Dr. Tashel Bordere: Chadwick Boseman’s lived experiences and dying story (end-of-life story) have major cultural significance in elucidating intergenerationally transmitted values paramount to survival amid complex, persistent losses and bereavement for Communities of Color.

Black communities are simultaneously confronted with the disparaging and disproportionate death rates of black individuals through COVID-19 and the premature and highly visible deaths of people of color through community violence and police use of excessive force. The collective impact of Chadwick Boseman’s sudden death notification in concert with the experience of cumulative death and non-death losses related to health care disparities, racial injustice in policing practices and legal systems further compounds grief afflicting black communities, challenges depleting coping resources, and serves as a painful reminder that black men across social, educational, and economic standings all too frequently die young.

Culturally, Boseman understood that the option for leisure and privilege of time and space for grief and self-care, however well-deserved and within his rights, would be offset by his sense of purpose, social responsibility, and duty to carry on the work of multiple generations preceding him in death who worked tirelessly, under horrendous circumstances, to secure basic human rights for marginalized populations.

He understood the social significance of continuing to play the Black Panther in Marvel films.  Acting from a place of social consciousness and collectivism, both highly valued attributes in black communities, Boseman elected to check off items missing from the broader society’s bucket list, like opportunities to be educated and affirmed in the historical richness of African culture and heritage. Through his artistry as King T’Challa and Black Panther, and personal life, Chadwick Boseman offered a positive black male image in an industry dominated by negative, stereotypical representations of black lives.

Boseman symbolized and affirmed the power, beauty, humanity, strength, vulnerability, grief, and resilience of black men as individuals and as persons in relation to others. Like many ancestors before him, with grace and humility, and presumably his own grief, Boseman courageously assumed the professional and personal roles of social change agent, infusing hope, compassion, selflessness, and grief enfranchisement in addressing the on-going social, educational, health, economic inequities, and suffocated grief (Bordere, 2016) disproportionately impacting bereaved vulnerable youth and communities of color. He provided a powerful cultural representation of presence through pain, through that of his own and the suffering of others.

Tips for coping:

  • Name, explain, and normalize: Celebrity grief is okay and normal.
  • Know that grief is expressed in different ways (physically, cognitively, emotionally, socially, spiritually, behaviorally).
  • Allow yourself time and space for processing the loss and its personal and/or cultural meaning.
  • Share stories — values or attributes you admire and wish to emulate to stay connected to the deceased.
  • Honor their life; don't let their death eclipse it. You can continue a connection with them through their art, works, and the significant meaning they brought to your life.
  • The stress of grief is buffered when shared — find a fan group, or friends, online or in-person, to share in the love and grief of your celebrity.
  • Learn from their death. Some ways may be: participate in important health care screenings - talk to your doctor about risk groups/factors; get help with mental health and/or addiction issues; practice personal and public safety; and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 if you are feeling suicidal.
  • Make meaning, find purpose, continue the bond: support important causes that you and your celebrity shared.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory

Dr. Jill Harrington is a clinical social worker, specializing in the intersection of grief, loss, and trauma as well as an adjunct assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and Part-time Lecturer at Rutgers University School of Social Work. Dr. Tashel Bordere is an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Science and State Extension Specialist, Youth Development, University of Missouri-Columbia. The focus of her research is social justice in loss and grief and Black family bereavement. They both have held leadership positions at the Association for Death Education & Counseling.

References

Bordere, T. C. (2016). Social justice conceptualizations in grief and loss.  In D. Harris & T. C.

Bordere (Eds.), Handbook of social justice in loss and grief: Exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion. Amityville, NY: Routledge.

Doka, K. J. (1989). Disenfranchised grief. In K. J. Doka (Ed.), Disenfranchised grief: Recognizing hidden sorrow (p. 3–11). Lexington Books/D. C. Heath and Com.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Attachment (Vol. 1). New York: Basic.