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Parasocial Losses: Why It Hurts When a Celebrity Dies

Losing a favorite media figure can transform a public loss into a private one.

Key points

  • Our involvement with media figures predicts how strongly we react to their loss.
  • Existing vulnerabilities may be triggered by the death of a favorite media figure.
  • Parasocial bonds with deceased media figures can also lead to positive outcome.
  • Ultimately, how we respond to a media figure passing away reflects our own emotional connections.

I still remember the shock and sadness I felt on seeing the headline that Steve Irwin, a well-known wildlife expert and TV personality, had been killed by a stingray at 44. Perhaps it was because he seemed immortal—or at least, infallible when it came to animals. Perhaps it was because he was someone I was used to seeing on television, who felt like a "regular person" in spite of his camera-friendly charisma.

Most recently, I found myself reacting similarly to the recent and untimely deaths of former Saturday Night Live cast member, comedian Norm MacDonald and Willie Garson of Sex and the City fame, both of which prompted outpourings of sentiments from celebrities as well as coverage by major news outlets. Why does it hurt (so much) when a media figure dies?

The answer to this question is both obvious and not so obvious. On the one hand, why wouldn’t it hurt when a media figure dies? We come to feel as if we know our favorite media personalities, as if they are our friends. (You may have heard the increasingly ubiquitous term that captures this phenomenon, coined by sociologists in the 1950s: parasocial interaction.)

We spend considerable amounts of time watching and listening to media figures on television, in movies, and most recently, on podcasts. As comedian, actor, and writer Mike Birbiglia recently wrote in an email newsletter, “Mike here. Your friend who’s not technically your friend but you know more about than your actual friends? That guy!” [On point: I found myself chatting amiably with Mike after one of his shows years ago, forgetting, temporarily, that I didn’t actually know him, perhaps because I had listened to hours of his self-confessional comedy. In fact, it goes both ways; Ellen DeGeneres once admitted on her show that when people come up to her on the street, her first reaction is to wonder if she knows them from somewhere because they are greeting her warmly.]

On the other hand, why would we experience feelings of loss, sometimes to the point of tears or even more extreme upset, when someone with whom we do not have an actual relationship with passes away? As it happens, our social and emotional lives operate in many powerful symbolic ways. How else might we keep someone we have lost “with us” after they are gone? How else might we keep close others in mind when they are far away? In the next room? We are equipped to be connected, in ways that are not always, nor even commonly, literal.

Parasocial Loss

Your own reaction to the deaths of Norm MacDonald and Willie Garson likely depends on how well you felt you “knew” them, if at all, among other relevant psychological tendencies. Research shows that both anticipated and actual loss of a parasocial relationship is related to the intensity of the existing parasocial relationship, in addition to relational vulnerabilities such as attachment anxiety or loneliness.

For example, capitalizing on a real-time parasocial “break-up” scenario, researchers surveyed participants about how they felt one week after the hit sitcom "Friends" went off the air (of course we now live in the age of streaming syndication, and new generations of fans have formed parasocial bonds with the likes of Rachel and Phoebe!). Not surprisingly, those who reported stronger parasocial bonds with a favorite "Friends" character scored higher on a parasocial breakup scale (e.g., “Now that my favorite 'Friends' character is off the air, I feel sad”).

In the age of social media, we are also witness to the grief of other media figures to whom we may feel parasocially attached. This may increase the intensity of our own reaction as we read or hear poignant and personal tributes acknowledging the loss of colleagues and friends (e.g., Conan O’Brien devoted a podcast episode to remembering Norm MacDonald; costars took to social media to memorialize Willie Garson).

When Collective Grief Becomes Individual Pain

Some media figures, by virtue of their widespread popularity and appeal, garner more intense outpourings of collective and individual grief than others, as in the case of Princess Diana. Over 30 peer-reviewed psychology articles have been written about her death.

One case study focused on a woman who attributed her symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation to learning about the death of Princess Diana, who she maintained meant more to her than her husband or son. Other broader examinations showed an increase in suicide rates in England and Wales following her death, particularly among women in Diana’s age group. The authors noted that this association may have occurred in part due to “amplification of personal losses or exacerbation of existing distress.” Parasocial relationships are often associated with feelings of identification or wishful identification with a media figure. Further, because we imbue parasocial bonds with our own emotional and social realities, sometimes these vulnerabilities can dovetail with media attachments in tragic ways.

A less extreme example of Princess Diana’s impact comes from a study which found that British participants who reported an increased “need for affect” (a tendency to lean into one’s emotional experiences rather than avoid them; e.g., “It is important for me to be in touch with my feelings; I need a good cry every now and then.”) also reported more frequent and negative responses to Princess Diana’s death. How people respond to media figures often says more about who they are than who the media figure is.

Are There Any Benefits to These Parasocial Sensitivities?

Yes. For one, experiencing feelings of loss at the death of a celebrity might function as a way to flex one’s empathy muscles, which has been described as both an outgrowth and a draw of becoming “transported” into media narratives. Further, parasocial involvement with a media figure may have positive implications for the mental or physical health conditions that were relevant to their death.

For example, those who reported a strong parasocial attachment to Robin Williams and who were trying to find positive meaning in his suicide reported more health information seeking/sharing (e.g., about depression) online in the aftermath of his death. Other research also documented an increased volume of calls to suicide helplines in Australia in the week following his death.

Yet another study analyzed the impact of Carrie Fisher’s death on social media. During her life, she struggled openly with alcoholism, drug abuse, and bipolar disorder. Fans used Twitter to present honest and motivating comments about their own mental health with the hashtag #InHonorofCarrie.

Who Do You Care About?

From a friend who experienced nostalgia and a sobering reminder of his own mortality after hearing Norm MacDonald died, to a friend (and judge) who broke down and sobbed upon hearing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing, our responses to celebrity deaths are simultaneously public and personal. In the latter case, our reactions may run from the mild to the extreme. In any case, our connections to media figures both reflect and contribute to our emotional lives.

More from Dara Greenwood Ph.D.
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