In today’s connected world, it’s easy to feel as if you know someone you’ve never met based on their social media feed, online persona or films and TV shows they’ve acted in. Even knowing your favourite verified TikToker’s most-hated ketchup brand isn’t weird anymore.
But what happens when a favourite celebrity or influencer of yours you’ve never met before and doesn’t know who you are, dies? Is there space for that grief — or better yet, is your sadness valid since you never even knew the real person behind the camera?
In June 2009 three celebrities died within days of each other— Michael Jackson, Billy Mays (the OxiClean guy), and Farrah Fawcett — all passed on the same week. I remember not being happy they died, but also not sad. And I was only eight years old when Princess Diana died in 1997, so I was confused watching my mom and millions of other people cry during her televised funeral.
I seemed to be far removed from the circle though, as most people I knew did have emotional attachments to famous stars who died. Like David Bowie who died in 2016. It wasn’t only his friends and family who grieved his loss — fans were devastated too. Why are we so personally affected by celebrity deaths?
Psychotherapist Tom Kersting, told Reader’s Digest last year that celebrities, such as actors, athletes, and musicians, can leave a lasting mark on people.
“We don’t personally know these celebrities, but there’s no doubt that their work can leave a positive imprint on our minds and memories,” explained Kersting. “For example, Tom Petty’s passing can trigger past memories of his songs that can take a person back to that specific time in life. An actor’s death can bring back memories of a movie he or she did, triggering memories from that time in your own life.”
My more or less lack of response to other celebrities passing led me to be surprised at how sad I was finding out Betty White died on Dec. 31, 2021. I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me. I used to watch Golden Girls with my grandma, but Betty White aka Rose Nylund doesn’t know my grandma, and my grandma doesn’t know her — why, for what I think was the first time, did I care about a star’s death?
It took me a few days to realize I was sad, but when I did, I took a moment to think about what I knew about her. And it wasn’t a long moment because I know nothing about her other than she is a popular American icon who stood up for equality and sometimes made me laugh playing a not-so-smart widow on Golden Girls.
But maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s all I needed to know to care about her. Or, maybe her death reminds me of all the happy times I spent watching Golden Girls with my grandma in frigid northern Manitoba, de-shelling red pistachios for her while asking a million questions about her own childhood in the prairies during commercials. I’ll never really know why, but I’m thankful for those moments and thankful they made me sad. Fingers crossed I outlive Dolly Parton.
Here are seven reasons it’s not crazy to grieve a celebrity death from whatsyourgrief.com:
We don’t know celebrities, but we know celebrities: They have often been a regular part of our lives, in the shows and movies we love, creating the music that defines moments in our lives, creating art and writing we love. We have often seen them grow and change and, in some cases have felt connected to those changes.
We feel connected to our favourite celebs: These connections are not just about how much we love, appreciate and respect these people, but sometimes because they remind us of, well, us. This can be as specific as their connection to a moment in our past, or as general as the fact that they are about our age or have something else in common with us.
They are connected to friends or family who have died: Each time we lose something else connected to our loved ones we can experience the sensation that we are even further from our loved one.
We connect with the way the celeb died: Whether it is cancer, suicide, overdose, accident or any other type of death, this can hit a nerve. It may be because we have struggled with the same thing, or it may be because we lost someone in the same way.
That celeb was always there to comfort us: Maybe it was binge-watching The Sopranos to get you through the early days of your own grief. Or perhaps it was listening to the Velvet Underground that got you through a particularly painful time. Whatever it was, when a celebrity dies who brought us comfort in our difficult times, it can be especially painful and bring up past losses.
We see it everywhere: You turn on the TV, listen to the radio, log on to social media, look at google news and you just can’t avoid it. This constant exposure can be overwhelming and it can make it hard to get a break from the tough emotions.
They will never do or create anything new: One thing people say when an artist, actor, or musician dies is “at least the world still has all their work.” Though this is true, having their existing works doesn’t mean there isn’t a deep sense of loss that they will never create anything new.
Hot tip: Google Betty White for a cute surprise.