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Celebrity Deaths: Why We Grieve and Why It's Important

"When they die, a little part of us dies too."

Chances are, news of a celebrity death has saddened you at one point. From Eddie Van Halen and John Lennon to Princess Diana, Maya Angelou, and JFK—to name a mere handful—their absence may cause you to grieve deeply.

Along the way, you may have questioned why you’re so upset about a celebrity's death. How can someone you never really knew cause you to grieve?

Experts say that the loss is indeed personal and undeniably real. It’s a sadness that transcends missing their guitar playing, acting ability, or comedic timing—and an emotion that deserves attention.

“Mourning the death of a celebrity we’ve admired is just as important as any other death,” says therapist Aniesa Hanson, Ph.D., of Tampa, Florida. “Grief is grief. Ignoring your feelings of grief won’t make you grieve faster—it can actually do the opposite.” She adds that just because you may have never met a celebrity in person doesn’t mean your grief about their loss is invalid.

Deep Emotional Bonds

The bond you may have had when Elvis Presley or Robin Williams was alive may have been—and still may be—highly impactful. “Our relationships with celebrities are different than our everyday relationships,” says Hanson. “Our emotional bond with an influential person is based on our projection of what we need that person to be for us during influential moments of our lives. It’s the idea of that person we bond to, not necessarily the person themselves—since we didn’t come to know them in real life.”

This is where things can become emotionally complicated. Their music or sitcom character have been by our sides throughout our lives. After a while, people tend to feel as though the celebrity, much like their talent, will never leave us. “Because we bond to celebrities at a distance, we have a tendency to immortalize them through nostalgic life experiences,” Hanson explains, adding that this makes it “difficult for us to see them as the mortals they are.”

In other instances, we gravitate towards a particular celebrity because we find traits in them that resonate with our own life. “Many times they are relatable to our own experiences, or they signify a part of the self that has not been fully developed,” says Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California.

A One-Sided Relationship That Fulfills Personal Needs

Interestingly, the relationship you develop with a celebrity has a name: “The relationship between one who develops strong feelings about a particular celebrity, sports team or television/cable star is called a parasocial relationship,” explains licensed clinical psychotherapist Julia Breur, Ph.D., of Boca Raton, Florida. She says it’s a one-sided, non-reciprocal relationship, “where one person extends emotional energy, interest, and time and the other party or the persona is completely unaware of the other’s existence.”

Print and online publications, as well as social media sites, can heighten a person’s emotional involvement since it provides additional means to access information about a celebrity. Bahar agrees. “They are there for us with a click of a button and respond to us in many cases. Losing the connection creates a disconnect to that person and it can be very difficult for some to adjust.”

Breur says people form such parasocial relationships for many reasons, including:

  • To better cope with our anxiety and depression
  • To mentally escape from stressful real-life relationships or situations
  • To experience entertaining enjoyment

Celebrities as Crucial Life Counterparts

Ever learn of a singer’s passing, only to have a flood of “I remember exactly where I was in life listening to their hit song” moments? Perhaps it was a first kiss. A wedding song. A break-up.

Hanson says that certain celebrities may be “embedded into your youth.” Therefore, when a celebrity dies, it’s linked to significant life moments that have a strong emotional influence. “Not only are celebrities infused into our developmental milestones, they oftentimes fill roles of a mentor or support person we were lacking,” Hanson notes. “We turn to them for support and they become part of our lives. When they die, a little part of us dies too.”

Celebrity Grief Is Normal

It’s a perfectly normal feeling to grieve the death of a celebrity. “Feeling grief after a celebrity death is not unusual at all because when we like or admire a celebrity, we form personal attachments to them,” Breur says. “A celebrity may have played an important role in our life at some point," including being part of our happiest or saddest life moments.

The loss may be utterly devastating depending on the memories, how a person related to the celebrity, and how the celebrity died. If it is a sudden death like that of Robin Williams or Princess Diana, Bahar says that a person may experience shock, depression, or even deep overwhelming thoughts of self-harm. “If it was a progressive illness that the person was preparing for and fighting for, that may be less impactful because one was prepared,” she adds.

Tips to Mourn Death of a Celebrity

  1. Allow yourself time to mourn the celebrity. Be mindful of your feelings and explore them in your therapy. Sometimes even fandoms are helpful, or their social media page. When to be concerned: If you are unable to participate in life, having difficulty focusing, not eating, crying, or fixating on the death, this is a time to consider professional help, Bahar suggests.
  2. Give yourself space to feel the pain of loss and reflect on their life as you experienced it. Consider watching a movie the celebrity starred in or play music they composed soon after hearing of their death in order to honor, feel, and cushion the shock of the sad news, Breur says.
  3. Reflect on your own life. When a celebrity dies, it can wake us up to the sobering reality that no one is immune to death. It’s a reminder of how quickly life can be taken away no matter how “special” we are. This can help give us clarity in our own life, Hanson says.
  4. Recognize the signs that you’re grieving to get in touch with your body and mind, Breur says such signs can be:
  • feeling disbelief, unfairness, shock, or numbness
  • fatigue or trouble sleeping
  • expressing anger or resentment
  • feeling sad, empty, or lonely
  • upset stomach or headaches

If you’ve been impacted by a celebrity's death, it’s critical not to ignore your feelings. “Take an inventory of how you’re feeling and give yourself permission to grieve the loss of this person,” Hanson says. “Losing someone is a big stressor, so it’s important to take your time and grieve in a way that works for you and your needs.”

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