The recent news of Kobe Bryant’s (and his teenager daughter Gigi’s) tragic death sent shockwaves across large swathes of America (and through many households in the UK too). We can all remember where we were the news broke that Amy Winehouse had died. Ditto Love Island‘s Mike Thalassitis, Toni Morrison or Nipsey Hussle… the list goes on. But is it normal to grieve for somebody you’ve never met? And what happens when you can’t move beyond that initial shock and ‘raising a quick glass to’ tinge of sadness? We asked Dr Jonathan Pointer, Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Therapy Sanctuary.
Is it normal to grieve when a celebrity dies?
Firstly, let’s take a look at the word grief, says Dr Pointer. “While all the feelings are real for the person experiencing them, the term ‘sorrow’ rather than ‘grief’ is generally more appropriate when describing the emotions we might feel when a celebrity dies,” he explains. “Unless of course we did know the celebrity in real life.” That said, all feelings range in terms of intensity, frequency, and duration, and for some people, they may well experience something more akin to grief – but it’s not 100% the real deal.
“It’s more likely for a person to respond with strong emotion to a celebrity death if they’ve experienced a bereavement before. The new passing could trigger the re-experiencing of past grief,” advises Dr Pointer. “Sometimes it can be easier to mourn the loss of someone that we don’t have a complex relationship with. A relationship with a celebrity is one-sided, so very different compared to one with someone whom we love, but have natural, mixed feelings towards.” It’s not uncommon for people to project sadness and grief that they’ve not yet fully expressed for a loved one onto a celebrity instead.
With, say, musicians, listening to their songs can be an intimate insight to their lives and help you make sense of your own feelings and place in the world. When your favourite artist dies, the opportunity to recreate more memories involving them ends too. This can be a tough pill to swallow. Equally, in a way, celebrities also appear a bit immortal to us regular folk, so when one of them dies (especially in tragic circumstances) it also hits us with a stark reminder that sadly, nobody lives forever.
Why do we feel like we have a personal relationship with famous people?
“Everyone we meet, regardless of whether it’s in “real life” or through the media becomes real to us, because we develop internal representations of them in our minds,” says Dr Pointer. “If we identify with a celebrity in some way, be it by connecting to their personality or their particular struggles and experiences in life (including any illnesses or where they grew up), then their death will feel more impactful.”
It’s easy to make a celebrity a companion too, sometimes without even realising, particularly over the space of several years. For example, if you watch Friends re-runs every night, then the cast will become a part of your daily routine, equally if you switch on Radio 1 at the same time every morning, Greg James is likely to be a regular fixture in your life. “In some cases, celebrities can almost feel like part of our extended family,” notes Dr Pointer. “Thus, when they die, it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss.”
How do you get over the death of a celebrity?
When people we’ve loved in ‘real life’ die, we often feel that there are things we need to communicate to them which have been left unsaid. Therefore, talking to a photo of our loved one, or writing to them in a journal, can be therapeutic. The same can be said for celebrities too. “Our grief for a loved one doesn’t diminish over time, nor would we want it to. Instead our lives expand around our grief, as we go on living, and thus we tend to become gradually less overwhelmed by grief as time passes,” explains Dr Pointer.
It’s a long and painful process, that doesn’t follow a chronological order or set of rules. Anybody who has suffered a bereavement will know just how easily it can sneak up on you when you least expect it – or even when you do, on significant dates or anniversaries.
“It’s important to recognise that funerals provide a space for us to begin to process our feelings, whilst in the presence of others whom also loved the person who has died,” Dr Pointer continues. “However, because most of us aren’t in a position to attend the funerals of celebrities, we have less access to the rituals that allow us to gradually process our sorrow.” Instead, he advises, people will turn to digital gatherings on platforms like Twitter, in an effort to express their feelings. “With regards to managing our sorrow when a celebrity dies, we may find solace in reconnecting with them through playing media recordings of them. It may also be helpful to share our memories of them with other fans too.”
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