Why Celebrity Deaths Feel So Personal

A one-sided relationship can inspire the same grief as losing a loved one

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
4 min readJan 28, 2020

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Photo: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

II can tell you what episode of Friends I was watching when I learned that my mother had died. But I can also tell you that I was floating in my grandmother’s swimming pool when I heard about Princess Diana. And I know that I was waiting for a table at a California Pizza Kitchen when the news of Michael Jackson’s death broke.

I was at book club on Sunday when I heard about Kobe Bryant. I’ve never even watched an NBA game, but if you ask me 10 years from now where I was when I learned about the helicopter crash that killed him and eight others, I’m sure I’ll remember.

It might seem strange to hold the death of a parent in the same mental space as the death of a faraway athlete or pop star or princess. But anyone who’s ever been shocked and upset by the loss of someone famous knows that it doesn’t feel far away at all. Fandom can trick our brains into trusting celebrities the way we trust friends or family. Especially now that the internet and social media offer us intimate access to celebrities’ daily lives, the connections we form with them can feel utterly real.

So when death severs this connection, it feels like we’ve lost a loved one. And in a way, we have.

We mourn celebrities because we know them (sort of)

When we invest a great deal of time watching or reading about a famous person, we create what’s called a parasocial relationship: a one-way bond where the other person doesn’t know you exist, but you’ve dedicated emotional energy to get to know them. People felt like they traveled the globe with Anthony Bourdain or experienced the magic of a galaxy far, far away with Carrie Fisher.

The experience of fandom today has made it easier than ever to form parasocial relationships with intensity and depth. We have Twitter to give us access to famous people’s thoughts in real time, Instagram to see what they had for lunch, and online communities to bond with other fans. Most of us know more about our favorite celebrities’ personal lives than we do about those cousins we only see at Thanksgiving.

Celebrities are a part of our

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.