A gentleman said to me yesterday, “I don’t know why hearing about Kobe Bryant’s death is affecting me so much. I never met him!”
I responded matter-of-factly, “Sounds like you’re grieving.”
He got a little uncomfortable and admitted, “I’m embarrassed – can I grieve a public figure I’ve never met?”
First, let me answer his question with a simple “yes.”
Secondly, not that you need permission to grieve anyone or anything, but let’s unpack grief to shed some light on how you may be feeling.
8 reasons why we grieve celebrities we’ve never met before:
1. The death of a celebrity falls into the category of disenfranchised grief – grief that isn’t recognized, validated or supported in society. Our society may honor the death of a “loved one” but anything else (like moving, pet loss, deployments, abortions, miscarriages, adoption, etc.) aren’t always recognized as “grief worthy.” This explains the embarrassment and questioning, “am I allowed to grieve a celebrity I’ve never met?”
2. Sudden deaths are emotionally complex and hard to wrap our heads around no matter what. When someone (friend, family, celebrity, etc.) is sick or terminally ill, we can begin altering our expectations of the future and prepare ourselves for a goodbye. Sudden death robs us of that goodbye. It leaves us feeling very incomplete.
3. Tragic deaths feel incredibly unfair. The scariness of a painful, tragic death to someone who is healthy, loving and well-meaning leaves us asking “why?” We are left questioning why did this happen? We are uncomfortable hearing about an “undeserved” death or pain to an innocent person who has worked so hard in their life. We want a reason for the death. We also want to understand the accident causation so we can avoid experiencing tragedy ourselves.
4. We grow close to celebrities through social media. Platforms these days allow us to get a real-life glimpse into a celebrity’s life. With them visibly in-reach we realize they are a lot like us! We resonate with a public figure when we see that they are close to our age, our race, a mother/father and have the same struggles and celebrations that we do. We feel closer and connected to celebrities now more than ever before.
5. We miss people who have had impact on our lives. We have fond memories of people who have brought us entertainment, joy and inspiration. Quite simply, we will miss their presence in our lives.
6. Unresolved grief is most often about things we wish we could have said or done differently in the relationship. In addition, it’s about unsaid statements of an emotional nature that may have never been communicated. When a public figure provides us joy and entertainment, we are limited in our ability to share our appreciation. How many of us sit down and actually write fan letters to people we admire? When they die, we are left feeling incomplete and experience the emotions of unresolved grief, because the emotional statements of appreciation are left in our hearts and feel stuck/they weren’t communicated. The joy feels unreciprocated.
7. The loss of a celebrity can trigger other losses that we have experienced in our own personal lifetimes. We may feel the same feelings from previous losses that were left unresolved. We are also reminded that life is fleeting and precious.
8. You may experience pain because you’re empathizing with the celebrity’s family. Even the least empathetic people would shudder at the loss and the impact it must have on the celebrity’s children, spouse, parents, and close friends. It again reminds us of the people who will survive us when we die.
So, for these reasons and any other reason you may connect with in your heart – the answer is “yes” – it is perfectly normal to grieve a person you’ve never met.
Thera Storm, LCSW is an Advanced Grief Recovery Specialist. Definitions above are modeled after The Grief Recovery Method Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses including Health, Career and Faith.