Why Celebrity Deaths Feel So Personal

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 own life stories

Because of these parasocial relationships, celebrities often unwittingly play a vital role in our own life stories. When one of them dies, the narratives and memories they touched become newly colored with grief. How many grown-up basketball fans were once 10-year-olds shouting “Kobe!” after sinking a basket in their neighborhood court? Millennials can’t watch Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, or Hook with their own children without feeling a tinge of sadness for Robin Williams. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but it still manages to surprise us when it seeps into experiences we once thought of as uncomplicatedly happy.

Celebrity deaths poke at our fears

Celebrity deaths, especially sudden ones, can awaken our own anxieties. Most of us don’t go throughout the day meditating on our own mortality — if we did, we’d never get anything done. But the death of a famous figure reminds us that no one is guaranteed any amount of time on Earth.

It also reminds us that celebrities are mothers, fathers, and children. What parent hasn’t worried about dying and leaving their child? What child hasn’t worried about having a parent snatched away too soon? Deaths that make headlines agitate these primal fears. They make us examine the status of our relationships and vow to do better.

A celebrity death can feel like an unfinished story

Human beings are narrative creatures. We are storytellers at heart — it’s a skill that’s shaped us as a species — and we know that every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Life stories shouldn’t end in a helicopter crash at the age of 41 or an overdose at the age of 27. An abrupt ending that doesn’t connect with the rest of the story is deeply unsettling to us.

That can be especially true when it happens to famous people, who epitomize the societal narrative of success for us. We expect celebrities to have a graceful, Betty White-esque ascent into old age. They should win lifetime achievement awards, then drift off into the afterlife surrounded by their adoring grandchildren. We want to believe that if they can make it to the end of their story, then perhaps we can, too.

Celebrity deaths remind us of our humanity because behind the myth and the glamour, they are our fellow humans. We can choose to be embarrassed by our heartache for a stranger, or we can see that grief as a gift — a chance to reflect on what really matters and to spend our time on Earth chasing after it.

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

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