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Why we grieve the deaths of celebrities like Naya Rivera, and how to cope – Insider – INSIDER

  • 33-year-old “Glee” actress Naya Rivera died in a California lake after helping her son back on board the boat. 
  • Her death has rattled people for many reasons including her age and motherhood status, the accidental nature of her death, what her character represented for queer viewers, and the loss on top of an era of losses.
  • Experts say whatever you feel, even nothing, is normal and OK, and coping with grief can come in many forms and teach us a lot.  
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When actress Naya Rivera was confirmed dead July 13, celebrities, fans, and probably even people who’d never before heard her name, grieved.  

The 33-year-old, best known for her role as cheerleader Santana Lopez on the Fox series “Glee,” drowned in California’s Lake Piru after going for a swim with her 4-year-old son Josey Dorsey.

She helped him back on their rented Pontoon boat, but authorities said she was unable to muster the energy to get herself on board. 

The tragedy has hit some people harder than you might expect for a less-universally-known celebrity, for myriad reasons, including her age, being confronted with our own mortality, what her character — a Latina lesbian — represented, and how the pandemic has amplified emotions.  

In time, experts say, there are ways to cope, and grow, from loss. 

She was bold. She was outrageous. She was a LOT of fun.⁣ ⁣ Naya made me laugh like no one else on that set. I always said it while we were working together and I’ve maintained it ever since. Her playful, wicked sense of humor never ceased to bring a smile to my face.⁣ ⁣ She played by her own rules and was in a class of her own. She had a brashness about her that I couldn’t help but be enchanted by. I also always loved her voice, and savored every chance I got to hear her sing. I think she had more talent than we would have ever been able to see.⁣ ⁣ I was constantly moved by the degree to which she took care of her family, and how she looked out for her friends. She showed up for me on numerous occasions where she didn’t have to, and I was always so grateful for her friendship then, as I certainly am now.⁣ ⁣ And even as I sit here, struggling to comprehend, gutted beyond description- the very thought of her cracks me up and still brings a smile to my face. That was Naya’s gift. And it’s a gift that will never go away. ⁣ ⁣ Rest in peace you wild, hilarious, beautiful angel.

A post shared by Darren Criss (@darrencriss) on Jul 13, 2020 at 6:00pm PDT

When any celebrity dies, it can trigger a shock that the person is mortal 

Celebrity deaths — be it Anthony Bourdain, LeBron James, or Naya Rivera — can hit us hard, and differently than the death of a loved one. 

“You feel like you know them and they get you through so many things in your life; we see them as being immortal,” New York City-based psychotherapist Babita Spinelli told Insider. “They get us through our own traumas, our difficulties and when something happens to them that’s so tragic, we feel like we’ve lost a part of ourselves.” 

The shared experience of “knowing” a celebrity or the character they portray is important too. In life, they’re in all of our living rooms, social media feeds, and conversations with friends and strangers. In the case of endearing, flawed, and constantly developing cast of “Glee,” “we felt we could escape and connect with them,” Spinelli said. 

In death, then, their communal loss takes a different tone than a personal one, and allows people to connect with others about their grief, Gina Kornfeind, a bereavement counselor at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, told Insider.

Doing so may help people work through feelings they may have pushed aside following more private losses, be it a death, a divorce, or miscarriage. 

“Most people carry any grief they have alone and they don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “These public sharings are a vehicle, and it becomes safe and acceptable to express express grief.” 

One therapist says clients who lost parents young are grieving Rivera through the eyes of her son

Rivera was a 33-year-old divorced mother who authorities said appeared to have saved her child’s life but not her own.

Spinelli said she’s heard from clients, who lost parents themselves at a young age and are thinking about their own loss through Dorsey’s eyes. 

That her accidental death feels relatable — a small family enjoying a day on the lake — amplifies its emotional toll in ways that deaths from drug overdoses or rare diseases, for example, tend not too. 

Rivera’s “Glee” character was groundbreaking

Rivera’s character, Santana Lopez, developed feelings for her best friend over the course of the show, where the character ultimately realized she was gay. 

The nuanced portrayal was unusual at the time, and celebrities and fans alike have praised it for helping queer viewers understand and celebrate their identities.

“What she represented for many individuals trying to find their place in the world in regard to their sexuality, that was significant,” Spinelli said. 


There is tragic irony, too, to the fact that Rivera is the third young cast member of “Glee” — a “gleeful, therapeutic” show, Spinelli said. What’s more, her body was found on the anniversary of costar’s Cory Monteith’s death. 

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened emotions

Rivera’s death was a tragic loss in the midst of months of other devastating losses — of lives, jobs, homes, and purposes. “Emotions are elevated,” Spinelli said.

Some, too, have become desensitized to all the coronavirus deaths, and this loss may have been an emotional wake-up for some, Kornfeind said. 

“There has been so much loss and it’s almost like we’re becoming … a little bit numb,” she said. “I’m thinking that maybe Naya’s death is letting people be more in touch with the whole communal grief during COVID.” 

What’s more, Kornfeind said: “Accidents remind people of mortality even more; that things can happen suddenly, even if you ‘do everything right.'”

glee castmates lake naya rivera

Naya’s Glee castmates honor her where she was lost.

It’s more important than ever to reach out to other people, and find a way to honor lost ones 

Know that whatever you feel — overwhelming sadness, anger, fear, shock, or nothing at all — is what you feel and that’s OK, Kornfeind said. Moving through all of those emotions is normal, too.

“Make room in your heart for whatever emotions come up,” she said. “Remind yourself to cultivate compassion, that you’re doing the best you can with what what you have,” which may be fewer of the coping mechanisms you had pre-pandemic. 

Talking about it can help too, Spinelli said, be it with family members you watched “Glee” with, a therapist, or a virtual fan group. Eventually, you may find comfort in revisiting some episodes of the show. 

It is especially important now to connect with others, since many people are missing the simple coping mechanism of connecting via a hug. “People need to connect and have physical touch and we’re not getting any of that now,” Spinelli said. 

Kornfeind encourages people to find a way to honor lost ones, whether it’s a public shrine or a private donation to a charity the person believed in. 

Ultimately, finding a way to grieve — whether it’s Rivera herself, the coronavirus-related emotions her death has unearthed, or a past loss you never fully emotionally dressed — is critical. “If you don’t ever deal with it,” Kornfeind said, “I can tell you that’s not healthy.” 


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