When celebrities die, we often find ourselves trying to process the grief that comes from losing someone who we don’t even personally know. For many of us, celebrity deaths can hit surprisingly hard.
In most cases, these are people you’ve never met. Perhaps he was a sports legend or a Hollywood icon. Or she was a famous singer or TV personality. In any case, you’ve formed an emotional attachment to this person, and their death can be understandably upsetting.
It could be that you and your parent bonded over an affinity for this person, or they may have been your inspiration to pursue that new sport or acting class. Even though they’ll never know of their impact in your life, as you accomplish new things, you may look back fondly and feel a kinship for the role they played in pushing you into something new, or helping you connect with that special person in your life.
Not only do many people look up to celebrities and try to emulate behavior, we often find ways that we relate to them. We see things about them in ourselves, and when those celebrities die, we’re not only faced with our own mortality, we lose that ability to relate.
What are normal responses to grief?
Everyone grieves differently, and there’s no one right way to grieve. But often people who are grieving may experience deep sadness, unexpected tearfulness or reduced motivation.
Other grief responses may include sleeping more than usual or having trouble falling asleep; difficulty controlling your thoughts; preoccupation with thoughts of the person who has died; fears that something bad might also happen to you or someone else you care about, among others.
While it may feel weird to experience grief for someone you don’t know, rest assured that it’s entirely normal. Others may not understand why you’re grieving the person, but your grief can be deeply personal. Regardless of the type of relationship that you felt to that person, that relationship has still fundamentally changed, and that’s where the difficulty stems from.
Do we internalize these celebrity deaths based on our personal experiences?
Sometimes. Perhaps we've been through something that’s similar and, therefore, feel more impacted. Someone who’s personally had to grieve a spouse or child might find themselves more impacted by the death of a celebrity who was married with kids.
Human nature craves connection and relation. So it can be easy to internalize and connect with the experiences of others that are similar to our own.
What are three tips to help cope with celebrity deaths?
1. Utilize your social support network and talk through what you're feeling.
Call your friends or family. Share with them what that person meant to you and how they’ve impacted your life. Sometimes, just a listening ear or talking to someone who can relate can be really helpful. People can’t support us well if we haven’t shared what we’re going through with them.
When celebrities die, that can be a wake-up call for us to face our own mortality, which can be upsetting. Death is scary for many people. For some it’s their greatest fear. Talking about that with others can normalize the feeling while also reducing its strength.
We tend to avoid talking about things that make us uncomfortable, but just the act of talking about it can often make it easier to deal with.
2. Reduce social media use and increase live activity, such as hobbies.
While social media serves many useful purposes, it can also reinforce negative thoughts and emotions. When we’re sad, we’re more likely to gravitate toward images and pages with similar experiences. This can strengthen the emotion in the moment, as it’s commiseration without real connection.
Engaging in something active like a hobby or activities gets us interacting with the world and into the mode of feeling accomplished. It serves as both a positive distraction and a healthy coping strategy.
3. Engage in gratitude activities to increase their presence in your day-to-day life.
For example, think about what you do have and maintain gratefulness for this. Evidence shows that engaging in gratefulness can improve mood to a significant degree.
Grief can allow us to feel overwhelmed with feelings that don’t feel good and can trap us into only thinking about the thing(s) we lost. By engaging in gratitude, we’re refocusing on the good things as well. We never want to ignore or negate the not-so-good things, but we want to make sure that we can also still see the good. This can reduce hopelessness.
How can attending memorials or joining online forums or social media help with coping?
Both in-person memorials and online support strategies can allow us to feel connected to a greater group who shared our affinity for the person and who also understand our grief on a different level.
This allows us to feel validated and gives us a space to more safely express our feelings, and reduces the loneliness that grief can lead to.
How does making memorials or leaving mementos to honor celebrities help with the grief process?
Grief feels helpless in many ways. We can’t bring the person back, we can’t “save” or “protect” them. We can’t get back what we feel we’ve lost. We are fundamentally changed and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Making a donation or a memorial or leaving mementos like stuffed animals, candles or sports jerseys allows us to engage in our grief in a tangible way. It allows us to still feel connected to that person through giving and promotes a feeling of remembering the legacy.
When memorials are more permanent or donations are recurring, it can allow us to feel as though we’re carrying their memory forward and not letting who they were die in spirit, even if they’ve died in body.
How can parents talk to children about the death of a celebrity?
Depending on the age of the child, be as real as you can, and talk about how life is short. Remind them that we can be grateful for all of the good times we had watching the celebrity playing sports, singing on stage or acting in movies or TV shows.
We can remember good things about the celebrity, and think of ways that we can model that behavior in our own lives to continue their legacy.
When should you seek medical help?
While grief is normal, talking with a professional can help process it in a healthy way.
For some people, grief can become more complicated and interfere with life functioning. If you find that you’re overwhelmed with sadness in a way that causes impairment in your ability to complete normal life tasks over a prolonged period of time, it’s important to reach out for help.
When grief increases in intensity and leads to hopelessness, helplessness or even thoughts that you’d be better off dead, it’s time to seek immediate help.
It can be hard to support someone who’s grieving. If you’re the support person for someone who is struggling with the grief process, remember that there’s no right thing to say. The best thing you can do for a grieving person is to be present and open to listening.
Avoid clichés and positive tropes, and be willing to just sit in the emotion with that person. Your presence and company means more than any direct efforts you can make.
Chelsi Day is a sport psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.