Why Celebrity Deaths Hit Us So Hard

Updated: Dec 27, 2021

Boardwalk Empire and The Wire's Michael K. Williams died September 6th, 2021

When a celebrity dies, there is this great loss felt by many. When they pass away, it isn't just their family and friends who mourn their loss; all their admirers do as well, even if they never met or saw this person in real life. What is it about celebrity deaths that affect us so much? There are a few factors on why we feel this way.

Comedian Norm Macdonald died September 14th, 2021

A Parasocial Bond

Parasocial bonds are "one-way" celebrity relationships in which many individuals feel highly linked to actors, artists, musicians, and others despite the fact that they have never met them. All that being said, parasocial bonds are actually pretty normal and many of us have them. Celebrities can feel like our long-time and childhood friends. Truly deep down, we know celebrities aren't our "real friends" rationally, but because we see them so frequently and have so much knowledge about them, it does feel like a real friend, and for some of us, celebrity parasocial bonds are more constant than real-life relationships; they never go anywhere and they never leave us. This is why when they achieve amazing things, we want to be proud of and connected to them. But it also means that when they become ill or die, we grieve for them as if we just lost a dear friend.

Actor Ed Asner died August 29th, 2021

The Nostalgia Factor

One can mourn the loss of a celebrity simply for nostalgic reasons too; the mere memory of a character they played can bring up such specific memories and times in our lives. These characters become a part of who we are as a result of nostalgic reflection, even those with whom they had no parasocial connection. We identify with a protagonist they played in the past, they feel like such a big part of our own character development and as a result, when they die, we may feel as though we have lost a piece of ourselves.

British Comedian Sean Lock died August 16th, 2021

The Realization of Impermanence

When a celebrity, especially one who has always been a constant, dies, it reminds us of our own mortality and the impermanence of material life. This is twofold for the fan; it reminds us that everything in the material world is finite and temporary, and it also reminds us of our own mortality. According to terror management theory, most people have a fear of death, which we largely handle by avoiding and not thinking about it. So when something (like the death of a beloved comedian) pushes our own mortality into our minds, it can be shocking to our systems. It is a reminder of our own aging and death.

When A Celebrity Dies, it Makes us feel like "Everyone is Dying"

Celebrity deaths are upsetting because just a few deaths can make it appear as if everyone around us is passing away. Some say this is due to the availability heuristic; the more easily we can think of examples of something, the more we assume that it happens a lot. Some examples of availability heuristics are plane crashes, shark attacks, etc. The probability is actually rare, but our mind makes a shortcut that relies on immediate examples that form an opinion on the outcome. How many times have you seen two celebrities die a month apart and hear people say "A third one is coming", and guess what? The truth is, yes, one is coming, but that is because celebrities are people and people die every day.

Grief is Love

Lastly, I want to remind everyone as we grieve for the ones we loved and cared about, your grief is a true sign of your love and affection for someone. I try to always remind people that your emotions and feelings around grief are normal and valid, no matter how chaotic they may feel at the time. Just because you can’t explain your grief or your friends and family don't understand it, doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t valid. Don't marginalize your own grief after a celebrity you cared about dies, you have every right to be sad and miss them. It might be helpful to think of it as a high form of praise. You enjoyed their work, a craft they worked their whole life to perfect. You mourning their departure and the tears you shed, are the highest form of flattery and best compliment you can give them on a job well done.

If you’re one of the many fans struggling to come to terms with this week’s sad news, or you have found it difficult to cope with one of the recent celebrity deaths, please feel free to contact me. The information provided on this website or links to others is to be used for educational purposes only. It should NOT be used as a substitute for seeking professional care for diagnosis or treatment. This information should be used in conjunction with professional care.
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