A Psychologist Explains Why We React So Strongly to Celebrity Deaths

Updated: Nov. 27, 2022

Don't let anyone give you grief for mourning a celebrity's death: It's perfectly normal and natural, say mental health experts.

One year ago today, following the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, you may have noticed an outpouring of grief on social media. The news was tragic: 41-year-old Bryant, along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash Sunday, January 26th, 2020 in Calabasas, California. He left behind a legacy on the basketball court with a career spanning 20 years, as well as his wife, Vanessa, and three daughters, Natalia, Bianka, and Capri.

Whenever a famous star dies, it’s not only their family and friends who grieve for them—their fans are devastated as well, even if they never met or saw their icon in person. Why, exactly, are we so affected by celebrity deaths?

Celebrities, such as actors, athletes, and musicians, can leave a lasting mark on people, explains psychotherapist Tom Kersting. 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. “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,” says Kersting. “An actor’s death can bring back memories of a movie he or she did, triggering memories from that time in your own life.”

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, Kersting has some tips. First, try to focus on the positives that the celebrity brought to your life. “As a long-time Grateful Dead fan I remember how I felt when Jerry Garcia died,” he says. “Although I was sad about his passing, I smiled at the same time because his music created countless positive experiences for me with friends that I will never forget. So, the key is to be grateful for the positive memories and fixate on that rather than on the sadness.”

Second, just because you can’t explain your grief or your friends or family can’t understand it, that doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t a valid response. We’re often brought up to compartmentalize sadness and feel that we should mourn in a certain way, but grief is different for everyone. Finally, no matter who you’re grieving for, it’s important to seek professional help if it becomes too overwhelming or starts to interfere with your life. Now, learn about these things you should say to someone who is grieving.