How to Cope With the Loss of a Beloved Celebrity, According to a Grief Expert
It's never easy to hear about the death of an admired celebrity.
Along with the shock of the situation and the pain you feel for it, you might feel silly, or even ashamed, to be so affected by the loss of someone who didn't even know you. Of course, it's nothing to be embarrassed of—and the massive outpouring of love and support after Kobe Bryant's recent death shows it.
We wanted to learn more about grieving celebrity loss, and the best way to process those difficult feelings, so we reached out to counselor, educator and author Dr. Alan Wolfelt of the Center for Loss & Life Transition to find out.
Sweety High: How would you define grief, and what types of life situations cause as to grieve?
Alan Wolfelt: Grief is the constellation of thoughts and feelings we have when someone we are attached to dies. Grief is the container for our experience of loss. The stronger the attachment or connection, the greater our grief when that connection is broken.
Integrating losses into our lives requires that we allow our grief to become mourning. Mourning is "grief gone public," or the shared response to loss. Open and honest mourning is how we integrate losses into our lives. We come to grief and need to mourn when someone dies, but we also grieve many other forms of loss, such as divorce and other life transitions. I often say that anytime we gain something new, we give other things up. Our human capacity to attach requires the necessity to mourn in the face of life losses.
SH: Why is it that we can feel such grief for the loss of a celebrity, even when we didn't know them in real life?
AW: While you may not personally know a celebrity, such as Kobe Bryant, you can still feel very connected and need to allow your grief to become mourning when death occurs. It's actually quite common for people to admire and grow attached to famous people whose work, personalities and lifestyles we admire. Many people who love basketball attached to Kobe. They watched him play over the years and admired his level of talent. Even if they were a fan of other teams, they have been impacted by his death.
This is a reminder that life losses often unite us and remind us of the importance of allowing ourselves to mourn. If you mourn well, you can go on to live well and love well.
Many people had "linking objects" to Kobe, like posters of him on their walls. In this way, their self-identities can naturally become intertwined with him. When he dies, it also reminds us of our own mortality and triggers griefs that we may have been carrying. So, you mourn the death of the celebrity but is also invites you to mourn your other life losses.
SH: What would you say are the healthiest ways to process our grief for the loss of a celebrity?
AW: Some people will question themselves about why they are impacted by the death of a celebrity. When they keep telling themselves "I didn't really know him," this puts them at risk for denying themselves the right to take their grief and allow it to become mourning.
This highlights the importance of finding other people that are having a similar experience and getting the support you need to mourn. It takes courage to mourn in our mourning-avoidant culture, which often encourages us to buck-up and carry on.
Remember that the definition of mourning is "the shared response to loss." You need the support of other people, and usually, the ones that understand your need have also been impacted by life losses. It is helpful to find individuals and groups that have a similar experience to your own and make use of the support that then becomes available to you.
SH: A lot of people have been coming together to celebrate the life of Kobe Bryant as they mourn his death together. Would you say this is a healthy way to deal with this loss?
AW: The coming together reflects the organic instinct to mourn in the face of life losses. The use of ceremony we have seen helps people begin to acknowledge the reality of the death, understand that they are not the only ones hurting, activate mutual support, express grief into mourning and try to make meaning at a time when that is difficult to do.
I always say that when words are inadequate, you should have a ceremony! That is what people have instinctively been doing. They also naturally use symbols to provide focus to their mourning. That is why you have seen people bring Kobe's jersey, basketballs and other objects to places where they have gathered. This is all a very instinctive response to the human need to mourn.
Sadly, in a broader social context, our culture is de-ritualizing death. Many people today do not understand the why of funerals and the need to gather when someone dies, and are moving away from the death rituals we have had since the beginning of time. When a celebrity dies, and we see people gather, there are important lessons to be learned. Among those lessons are that when anyone dies, we should gather and move toward the functions I mentioned earlier: reality, recall, support, expression and meaning.
SH: Is there anything else on the topic that you think is important to remember?
AW: I would also mention that a natural complication of this circumstance of death is that it is traumatic. In the case of sudden death, your mind has an especially difficult time acknowledging and absorbing the circumstances of the death itself. The word trauma refers to intense feelings of shock, fear, anxiety and helplessness surrounding the cause of the death.
Trauma is caused by events of such intensity or magnitude of horror that they would overwhelm any human being's capacity to cope. I often say that sudden, traumatic death brings you to grief before you are prepared to mourn. It's sudden, unexpected and premature all at once. If you're dealing with traumatic death, you may want to refer to my book, Healing Your Traumatized Heart.
Mourning celebrities, as well as fictional characters, is completely natural. Click HERE for Dr. Wolfelt's advice on dealing with the loss of a fictional character.