Although celebrities can feel like larger-than-life idols, they’re only human. And sadly, we’re all mortal.
When a beloved public figure dies, it can be confusing to feel sadness or grief. Logically, we know they weren’t actually close to us. Usually we had never met them, and if we had it was only briefly for a photo-op or quick autograph.
But even though we didn’t have an intimate relationship with many of these people, they still can be psychologically close to us. It’s become a financial necessity for musicians to use their social media platforms to make us feel like they’re our friends, and that trend has spread into other entertainment disciplines like acting, modeling, and television hosting. Even before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it was natural for us to develop kinships with the celebrities we believed we understood based on their work.
“Fan mourns not only the loss of the celebrity, but other aspects of their personal life which have become bound-up with the celebrity,” Michael Brennan, a sociologist at Liverpool Hope University, told the French Press Agency after the death of the pop-star Prince in 2016.
When we think about a public figure, we often reflect on when we first became aware of them, or when their work began to resonate with us so personally. Hearing the news of their deaths forces us to reflect on that time. We feel nostalgia for it, and may even regret the passage of time. “Fans may…also be mourning the loss of personal relationships and the loss of self bound up with memories of a celebrity’s music and other creative endeavors,” Brennan told Quartz later in an email. So although we may outwardly express the fact that we’re mourning for the particular person, that’s not really the case. Instead, we’re mourning who they were to us, and who we were when we discovered them.
Jacque Lynn Foltyn, a professor of sociology at National University in La Jolla, California, told Vice News that the celebrities we feel close to are more like “intimate strangers.” The grief we feel for them may be criticized for not being genuine, considering that we only knew them from afar. Expressing our mourning over the internet may seem like a cry for attention—and in some ways it is. Scientific American once reported that when we do share on social media about the death of a public figure, it shows others that we are aware of major cultural events.
But if you feel heartbroken over the death of a public figure, let yourself grieve a little and celebrate their life. Consider using it as an opportunity to reach out to your own loved ones. There’s never a bad time to remind someone how much they mean to you.