It often brings us sadness from losing our loved ones and appreciation for cherished memories and times shared together. While the intensity of grief we experience often mirrors the closeness of our relationship with the deceased, this trend becomes perplexing once we consider the deaths of famous figures. The passing away of such figures, from celebrities to politicians to idols, are often immortalized in the narratives of public reports and the pouring flood of social media posts. Communities are often seen expressing their sympathy and heartfelt condolences in waves of public mourning, in which millions respond as if they had personal relationships with these individuals. Yet this is not true — for the vast majority of people, celebrities are not their friends. So why is it that we so sincerely grieve their deaths, even when we may never have met them? The act of mourning essential strangers demonstrates our innate humanity — our common desire for interpersonal connection and how we come together as a species to grapple with mortality and the issues that plague us.
With the advancement of the internet, celebrities seem to be more accessible than ever — we can read countless articles about them with a quick Google search, like and comment under their social media posts, and, if we’re lucky, even get a quirky reply. This unprecedented era of “relatable” celebrities has ushered in a culture where many falsely view the likes of Hollywood stars and sports personalities as friends. Mark Granovetter's theory of “Tie Strength” states that four factors establish a close relationship: sharing personal information, emotional intensity, duration, and frequency of interaction, as well as “reciprocal services” — assisting one another through favors. As a result of social media’s ubiquity in our modern technological era, these four factors are often met through interactions with celebrities online. When media personalities posting photos or reflections of their life are perceived as sharing intimate information by responsive fans, an illusionary “close” or “personal” relationship is often formed. During extended periods of watching, reading, and consuming content regarding admired celebrities, fans may feel as if they themselves have been a part of the celebrities’ growth and transition and perhaps even discover shadows of themselves through the experiences of these figures. This furthers the intimacy and emotional intensity that fans feel towards their idols, eventually developing into emotional attachments and even a psychological dependence known as “parasocial interaction”—the illusion that individuals hold a close relationship with their idolized celebrities despite having little or no personal interactions. Although parasocial relationships themselves are not substantial, the emotions associated with such relationships are evidently sincere.
Through parasocial interactions, we find ourselves genuinely happy for our idols’ achievements and empathetic to their struggles; we become inspired and motivated by them; we appreciate their interests, tastes, and values; and we care for them just as we would a friend. For instance, the grief that transpired after Kobe Bryant’s death far surpassed what a simple celebrity-fan relationship warranted. People on social media platforms such as Twitter talked about him as a basketball player, a philanthropist, and a pioneer of the sport, but for every one of those tweets, there were five more addressing him as a brother, a friend, and a personal inspiration, because his “Mamba mentality” — the mindset of "focusing on the process and trusting in the hard work" — had motivated many of his supporters beyond basketball alone. For many people — especially African Americans — he was living proof that hard work does lead to success and thus an icon that many followed zealously.
Similarly, many claim that they were shocked and devastated when rock band Linkin Park’s lead vocalist Chester Bennington passed away, recalling when his energetic and encouraging music pulled them out of the depths in their darkest times. His profound performances combined with his history of drug and alcohol abuse made him relatable to people with similar troubles — hearing him sing felt like hearing someone who knew what they were going through and was one of them. Perhaps it is precisely this unspoken connection and perceived relationship that allows Bennington’s listeners and Kobe’s supporters to grieve for them as if they had truly lost a loved one — perhaps they had, in some sense, however one-sided the love may be.
Grieving for famous figures also serves as a reminder of human mortality and opens discussions to social issues that are often evaded by all of us. Famous figures are perceived by many as representations of invincibility and perfection, with talents and accomplishments that entice eager followers to continuously pursue further information. Yet these illusions of invulnerability are often shattered when we see and grieve the demise of such an individual. Through mourning their passing, we simultaneously recognize them as inherently mortal with their own imperfections and limitations, and we understand the unpredictable and impermanent condition of human life. Thus, we are able to achieve a greater understanding of and appreciation for the things we truly hold dear to our hearts, pursuing the sentiment of carpe diem, or "seize the day," to act and avoid potential regret.
This was evident in the hours following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, as thousands of mourners flocked to the Supreme Court — a pilgrimage not only propelled by raw grief, but also the desire to seize the opportunity for change. Ginsburg was honored as more than just a feminist icon; she was a loving grandmother to girls, women, non-binary people, and those who yearned to speak with a powerful voice for change. To celebrate her memory and carry on her legacy, many mourners chose to donate to organizations or causes they believed she would have supported, using grief as fuel to engage in activism. Even wearing a face mask bearing an image of Ginsburg or one of her famous quotes allowed others to feel as if they were carrying on her values and mission.
Concomitantly, South Korean singer and actress Sulli’s death sparked soul-searching on misogynist culture and journalism ethics — reports linking her suicide to years of constant online abuse and cyberbullying saw many petition her agency and the South Korean government to enact stronger measures against the unceasing waves of hate comments directed towards celebrities. South Korean singer-songwriter Jonghyun’s suicide also raised great awareness about the significance of mental health and battles against depression — having held a concert just days prior, his death reminded many of how depression and mental health issues are often invisible killers. Hence, through mourning the deaths of these famous figures, supporters address significant social issues, opening discussions to confront life and death. And this form of remembrance can be especially cathartic — an outlet to process or express a range of emotions and thoughts that have been suppressed within.
Mourning for celebrities is not just about caring for a friend or confronting issues facing society — it is also a way of bringing people together in solidarity to rediscover a sense of "us" through mourning. Academic research and social surveys indicate that we often endure increasing degrees of mental isolation and therefore possess an innate desire for social connection. Dr. John Lucas, professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, claims that engaging in celebrities’ lives “fill[s] a gaping and painful void in [our own] lives.” With the significant lack of in-person social connectedness during the COVID-19 pandemic, the masses’ psychological dependence on social networks and celebrity engagement has only strengthened. Amidst the social distancing, quarantines, and lock-downs, many have relied upon celebrities and media to connect them with the broader community and retain a sense of togetherness. But with the deaths of such celebrities, people must turn to each other to retain these social connections. When people mourn collectively, especially the deaths of influential famous figures, they receive support from others and are able to share memories or thoughts within a community, drawing together people from all walks of life in cherished companionship. Moreover, mourning kindles an understanding of what we have gained and what we have lost, instigating reflection on our collective values so they are not forgotten.
Not knowing someone in person does not preclude us from grieving for them — in fact, grieving for famous figures is an integral part of many lives, because in our hearts we truly do carry a dear and infrangible connection with these loved individuals and with each other, however one-sided that connection may be. It is inherently human to want to connect with others; mourning a public figure provides us with a common platform to forge these connections with each other, and with this form of solidarity, we become better — more likely to express our sincerest sentiments, more able to empathize with and console others, and more willing to face our own mortality and the issues which plague our world.
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Golbeck, J. (2016). "You’re Not Really Friends with That Internet Celebrity." [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-online-secrets/201607/youre-not-really-friends-internet-celebrity
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This piece was written by Isabella Zheng and Jasmine Xu and edited by Max Fang, Erin Yue, Emily Fan, and Abigail Webster. Isabella Zheng is an 11th grader from Melbourne, Australia, who is interested in youth activism, as well as promoting diversity within local and global communities. She loves reading, playing sports, and trying new food. Jasmine Xu is a Year 10 student in Australia who has a keen interest in politics and philosophy, as well as the connections between the two. Other than reading and writing about political philosophy in her free time, Jasmine also avidly engages in drama, art, music and all other kinds of expressive arts. Max Fang is a 12th grader from Melbourne, Australia who is interested in writing, environmental activism and advocacy, literature, politics, and sports. Siyi (Erin) Yue is a 12th grader from Sydney, Australia who enjoys literature, dance, and improvisation. Emily Fan is an 11th grader from Melbourne, Australia who enjoys debating, poetry, and dancing (breaking, k-pop, and street jazz). Abigail Webster is a 15-year-old student in Melbourne, Australia. From a young age she has been a very outdoorsy person who enjoys being out in nature. In recent years, she has come to enjoy spending my time at home curled up with a good book, drawing, or watching YouTube. She likes to learn about other people and their interests, has many pets, and is interested in working with animals in the future.
Dimitriy Uvchenko is a 16-year-old who lives in Kiev, Ukraine with his mum, brother, a cat named Zefitka, and a big parrot named Gosha. When he has free time, he likes to take photos, fix electrical appliances, ride scooters, and learn English.
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