Petty is the latest of many rock star losses; recent celebrity deaths include David Bowie, Prince, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lewis, and Glen Campbell. 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 mind 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.” (Here’s why we get upset about celebrity breakups too.)
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.