Phillip Hughes. Alan Rickman. Carrie Fisher. Kobe Bryant. Chadwick Bosman. Bob Saget. Lata Mangeshkar. Shane Warne.
These are just a few, but each of these celebrity deaths gave rise to a flood of sentimental memories and grief-stricken admissions of shock, from career celebrations to more personal stories both from those who actually knew them to their fans who may or may not have ever even met them in person. This is not something new, celebrity deaths have captivated people since the idea of being a ‘celebrity’ has existed, but in recent times social media has increased this. It is no surprise that every time a celebrity passes away social media feeds are inundated with expressions of alarm, nostalgia, grief and sadness. Our responses as fans and members of the general public are emblematic of a unique social phenomenon where we feel attached to people we’ve probably never met and yet their deaths impact us deeply and traumatically.
When celebrities pass away, especially in cases where it has been unexpected, the news not only leaves their family and near and dear ones drowning in grief, but this also extends to their fans and followers. If we think about it logically, it doesn’t appear to make sense on the surface - to feel sadness and an overwhelming grief about the loss of someone you didn’t know personally. However, Mental Health experts believe that this is a normal reaction as the news of the death of a revered celebrity has an emotional source which is seated in the space they have in our memories. These celebrities don’t feel like strangers and their death sometimes feels like a personal loss, almost like we’ve lost a acquaintance or a friend. Given that we may not have something specific to hold on to like memories of time spent together, old texts, cards or any of their old belongings, this grief is quite different from the grief of losing someone we actually knew. It is a grief marked with big screens, crowded auditoriums, cheering fans and a unique sense of admiration and loyalty which we may not have even felt for someone we actually knew. If you have ever felt the pain or cried of felt empty for days over the death of a celebrity, know that you aren’t alone. In this piece we will explore the reasons why we feel this way which can provide us some insight around grieving over celebrity deaths and will also put forth some suggestions around how to better cope with these feelings.
When it comes to celebrity deaths and our emotions of sadness over it, we tend to either do it ourselves or find others around us who are quick to trivialise our grief by reminding us that “people die every day” or “Get over it! What's the big deal? You didn't know that person” or even remind us that the lives of celebrities are no more important than anyone else’s. While this is true of course, these feelings of loss are still valid. When our feelings are invalidated it just leaves us feeling worse, like we can’t be honest and we don’t have support, and this can enhance the pain.
Celebrity deaths resonate with us on a deeper, psychological level for a range of reasons. We may find ourselves grieving because it may have been our dream was to emulate their career path or because a celebrity death can also remind us of our mortality. Our personal connect to the celebrity makes it often hurt harder as they have been there to comfort us through our own difficult times as well. Losing them represents losing a part of ourselves. One of the hardest part of losing them is the realisation that they will never create anything new. We will never again hear a new song, read a new book, see them hit that winning shot, see a new film, or go to another live performance. We can simultaneously feel grateful for the works that exist while grieving the loss of their potential future works.
Celebrities, such as actors, athletes, and musicians, can leave a lasting mark on us especially on our minds and memories and through this, they connect with us. So even if we didn’t know them personally, their presence is still felt in our lives as they provided us with laughs, comfort, entertainment, excitement, or a sense of escape during our hard times. In this regard, when a celebrity who we have felt emotionally connected to passes away, it creates a void as they have been an integral part of our good and bad times. The celebrities we connect with have been a significant part of our lives, in the high points in our favourite sporting moments, in the shows and movies we love, creating the music that defines moments in our lives, creating art and writing we love. We have often seen them grow and change and, in some cases have felt connected to those changes. These celebrities may also be our connection to a loved one we may have lost and when the celebrity passes away, we feel like we are losing something else connected to our loved one and this gives us a sensation that we are even further from our loved one.
While our interaction with celebrities is still relatively mediated, they have become far more accessible to us through social media. This leads to a para-social attachment with these celebrities. Most of the times when we see celebrities, we see them at their best - looking like royalty at red carpets, winning awards, performing on stage or getting that match-winning shot. Although we know that they are human just like us, we tend to worship them and in looking at them as these larger-than-life personas we see them far above the mundane concerns of daily life. When we see them experience a tragedy such as death, it feels so personal because we have made such an emotional investment in them and our equations with them. When this projection bubble bursts, we lose part of ourselves too. Our connection to them is not just about how much we love, appreciate and respect these people, but sometimes because they remind us of, well, us. This can be as specific as their connection to a moment in our past, or as general as the fact that they are about our age or have something else in common to us.
Celebrity deaths look different now in a digital age and this can also impact how we grieve. The news about their death is suddenly everywhere. You turn on the TV, listen to the radio, log on to social media, look at news and you just can’t avoid it. The deluge of tweets, Instagram stories and Facebook statuses can deepen the loss of the celebrity as the constant exposure can be overwhelming, and it can make it hard to get a break from the tough emotions; but on the flip side it can also provide an arena for support and connection. There is a sense of community in those who are grieving together by posting thoughts on social media and it can help people feel less alone in their grief.
When a celebrity who we’ve looked up to dies, it can be undeniably hard because it breaks down our assumptions of how the world works. We can learn to grieve together, and create ceremonies to honour our pain and grief. There’s a few ways in which we can look after ourselves and grieve through this time. Some of them are:
Know that there is no right to wrong way to grieve - Just because you are mourning the loss of a celebrity doesn’t make your grief less important. Grief can look different for different people and it is important to recognise that and work through your own feelings. Give yourself the time (and permission) to mourn the person. Do not allow other people to tell you what to feel or what not to feel.
Be prepared for varied emotions - Grief can show up in different ways and know that all your feelings are ok, even if they’re diametrically opposed. It’s important that we allow ourselves the space to reflect on our relationships and feelings about any person who has died with honesty. This includes an acknowledgement not only of their strengths and the reasons we cared for or admired them, but also an acknowledgement that no person is without flaws. Feeling despair, confusion, relief, indifference, and feeling all of it at once? It’s ok.
Take advantage of certain avenues to express your loss - Choose to connect with others who understand how you feel (be it in your support network, public memorials or harness the power of social media) as connecting with others through collective mourning can help in the healing process. Talking about your grief in this community can also help you understand and accept that it is ok to feel upset in these circumstance and that you're not alone in what you are experiencing. It is a natural occurrence when you experience a loss.
Take a step back from your phone - If you start to feel overwhelmed from all the news it is ok to take a step back from your phone and social media during this time. Put a moratorium on your exposure levels to the story and as tempting as it might be, you don’t need to watch every tribute video or read every eulogy written. It also helps to verify your news stories.
Revisit their old work - Even if you didn’t know the celebrity personally, it is important to give yourself the time and space to feel your grief. It can be helpful to remember them by revisiting their work and reliving those emotions which you first experienced when you first encountered their work.
Try other coping techniques - When a celebrity passes away, sometimes the typical coping mechanisms such as posting on social media or revisiting their work may not always help. In such times, turning to other coping techniques such a journaling, mindfulness, grounding exercises, meditation can also be helpful. If you're not really sure how to go about it, there are apps that can help you meditate, or you can try taking a yoga class or working on some breathing techniques to help carry you through a tough time.
Look after your physical health - Build yourself a routine and make sure that you’re not neglecting your physical health and wellbeing. Focus on having a healthy sleep cycle, eat your meals on time, stay hydrated and try and get outside if you can for some fresh air and exercise.
Seek help if it becomes too much - If you find yourself having a hard time with coping with your emotions, you may benefit from talking with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in grief counselling, or you can connect to a helpline. It is important to talk and work through these feelings to ensure that you are able to cope in a healthy manner.
The truth is, there’s really no rulebook when it comes to grief, and when it comes to this age of digital media, these feelings of loss (and eventually healing) get intensified by the outpouring of new information, social media updates, and news articles at every blink. That being said, the only thing we can do while going through this time is to not be ashamed of our feelings or let anyone invalidate our emotions. Let’s give ourselves the permissions to feel our feelings, no matter what they are.
Written by: Vedica Podar