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There’s a psychological reason celebrity deaths hit us so hard

Well+Good logo Well+Good 1/27/2020 Aly Semigran
Kobe Bryant wearing a yellow shirt: Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers © Photo: Getty/Harry How Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers

Celebrity deaths happen often, and often unexpectedly, leaving fans who didn't personally know the deceased in a confused cloud of grief. Because logically, it doesn't seem to make a whole bunch of sense to feel sad about losing someone you didn’t actually know. Still, when news broke that basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his 13 year-old daughter, Gianna Bryant (who was a rising hoops star herself), had been killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, on Sunday, it was yet another reminder of how quickly life can be taken. Bryant was an unquestionably complicated figure in the NBA. But, on the court, he spent 20 seasons leading the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships, and proving himself to be one of the most competitive and hardest working athletes of his generation (let the 2000-2003 “three-peat” stand as proof). In the aftermath, coaches, and teammates expressed their grief and shock to the news—but so, too, did fans who had never met Bryant.

Pros say this reaction to mourn an athlete or a celebrity makes sense, especially when the person was someone we admired and who is inextricably tied to certain memories or moments in time. Like, yep, sports stars we grew up watching, TV heartthrobs we pined over, and musicians who soundtracked our seminal milestones. Our relationships with celebrities don't necessarily follow typically understood measures of time and space, making them seem subconsciously immortal to us in a sense. “They’re never supposed to die, and they’re always 25 in our heads," says Seattle-based therapist and grief counselor Jill Gross, PsyD. "When they die a little part of us dies, too—our innocence dies with them.”

Still, she says, “anytime we feel grief, it is valid.” So whether Bryant’s death affected you, or you can recall the way you felt when you heard about the passing of, say, Heath Ledger, or Aaliyah, Luke Perry or Prince, or Anthony Bourdain, understand that your emotions are or were absolutely valid. After all, people can impact you even if they don't know you. "Feelings are important, and they’re not to be ignored," says clinical psychologist Natalia Skritskaya, PhD of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. "Feelings are signals—if you feel sad about a loss, it’s a signal it had some meaning to you.”

Dr. Gross herself felt the loss of David Bowie when he passed way in 2016. “I grew up with him. He was a big part of my teen and young-adult identity and my love of music,” she says. “There’s a comfort knowing certain people are in the world, and when they’re not anymore, we have to rearrange the pieces of our life that don’t include them anymore.”

Our relationships with celebrities don't necessarily follow typically understood measures of time and space, making them seem subconsciously immortal to us in a sense; they don't age with us.

Mourning the loss of someone you don't know but feel connected to looks a lot like mourning any other loss. “The same principles would apply,” Dr. Skritskaya says, adding that accepting your own reactions may be the key difference when the grief doesn't feel quite logical to the person grieving. “It’s better to deal with it rather than push it away.”

And don't forget to talk through your feelings—even better if you can do so with others who are navigating similar grief. Whether you attend memorials or join online forums, Dr. Gross recommends finding an outlet to connect with others about the person you admired and why they meant so much to you. Furthermore, donating to a charity that the celebrity was passionate about can be a helpful coping and healing mechanism.

But the most powerful thing you can do in the wake of a loss? “Feel your own aliveness,” says Dr. Gross. Maybe that means going on a walk or giving back to your community or going on the solo trip of your dreams—anything to reconnect with our spirit and return to the most vibrant and powerful iteration of your own being.

However, pay close attention to your feelings in case you continue to struggle. “Loss is a stressor and can trigger a number of health and mental-health problems,” Dr. Skritskaya says. If you’re grieving a loss and are showingsigns or symptoms of depression, it’s important to seek the help of a mental-health professional.

Video: Kobe Bryant, daughter die in helicopter crash (Courtesy: KHOU-TV Houston)

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