Why the Death of a Celebrity Feels Like a Personal Loss
September 27, 2022
This article was originally published in 2020, after the death of Kobe Bryant.
I am re-publishing it today because of the world’s response to the death of Queen Elizabeth.
By Dr. Terri Daniel, CT, CCTP
As America grieves the tragic death of sports hero Kobe Bryant, we are stunned not only by the unimaginable terror of being in a helicopter that’s about to fly into a mountain, but by the fact that three children were also killed in that crash, including Kobe’s 14 year-old daughter. A violent or grim celebrity death reminds us that we are fragile, life is unpredictable, and safety cannot be assured. But why do we grieve when celebrities die peacefully in old age? Why does the media focus on Kobe’s daughter and not the two other young girls who also died with their parents in the crash? Why do celebrity deaths seem somehow special or different than the death of an average person?
Imagine that you’re in a movie theater watching your favorite actors on the big screen, where they are literally larger-than-life. In the same way that movies and tv shows are projections on a screen, the celebrities we admire often function as blank screens onto which we project fantasies of ourselves as heroes, saviors or romantic figures. More beautiful, more successful and more powerful than we are, personalities on the public stage — whether actors, athletes or captains of industry — carry those projections for us, and that link connects us to their idealized world.
Most of the time we only see celebrities at their best, looking like royalty on the red carpet, or scoring a game-winning shot on the basketball court. Sometimes we see them at home, being interviewed in their fabulous mansions, surrounded by their beautiful spouses and adorable children. Although we know rationally that they are just as vulnerable to misfortune as we are, we tend to worship them, making them into gods that carry our projections into a higher realm, far above the mundane concerns of everyday life. So when they experience tragedy — death, suicide, drug addiction, scandal – it feels personal, because we’ve given them so much emotional investment. The projection bubble bursts, and we lose part of ourselves. Another bubble also bursts… the one that contains the illusion that wealth, beauty and status can somehow protect us from harm.
As an example of how powerful that projection can be, when Pope John Pope John Paul II died in 2005, four million people came to Rome for his funeral, and millions more watched it on television. I was amazed that so many people were crying, and I wondered why they were so sad. He was 84 years old and had been ill for years, so his death was natural and expected. Their sadness was even more baffling because devoted Catholics would believe that he went heaven; the paradise they’d been promised by 2000 years of church doctrine. So why wouldn’t they be happy? Because more so than rock legends, athletes and actors, a religious superstar carries an even more powerful projection… our relationship with the divine, in whatever way we understand it. If the pope – presumably a perfect human being in the eyes of God – can become ill, suffer and die, then what does that mean for the rest of us?
The experience of loss and trauma breaks down our assumptions about how the world is supposed to operate. Even though we know that our assumptions aren’t reliable (such as “a child shouldn’t die before its parents” or “marriage should last forever”), we cling to them because without them, we wouldn’t be able to function. We wouldn’t marry or have children. We wouldn’t even leave our houses or drive our cars if we didn’t assume that we’d get home safely.
While we can never be fully prepared for the unexpected, we can teach ourselves to become more resilient by reframing the way we look at the world and relaxing our grip on our assumptions of safety. The less attached we are to those assumptions, the more competent we can become at navigating our losses. Because there WILL be losses. It can’t be avoided.
Here are some tips and tools for cultivating a more resilient spirit:
- Strengthen Your Inner Resources
The American Psychological Association identifies certain inner qualities that may contribute to a person’s capacity for resilience: 
. The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
. A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
. Skills in communication and problem solving.
. The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
If you are lacking in any of these areas, work on strengthening them through therapy, meditation and self-improvement practices.
- Lose your Belief in Specialness
The rich and famous are no more special than the lonely and destitute. Christians are no more protected from harm than Atheists or Wiccans. We’re all equal in the cosmic scheme of things, and we can all go down together in the same plane crash, regardless of our bank balances or which god we pray to.
- Grieve in Community
Our projections and emotional investments in celebrities cross national, racial, religious and cultural lines. A public loss, whether it’s a celebrity death or tragic event like a school shooting, gives us an opportunity to grieve in community, which is something that, in America, we don’t often get to do when coping with personal losses. Community grieving opens a door, for a brief moment, to a place where we all stand together, where it feels safe and supportive. Sadly, when the news cycle is over, we go back to our insulated, disconnected lives, until the next tragedy invites us to go through that door again.
- Create Meaningful Personal Ceremonies for Honoring Grief and Releasing Pain
In addition to connecting with community, I teach my students and clients to use ritual and ceremony as much as possible. Public memorial displays (see below) are a perfect example of this. They move the energy of sadness and pain from within our bodies out into the external world, where it can be seen and shared. Ceremonies like this can also be done privately, by simply lighting a candle, or doing something more elaborate such as one of the ceremonies described HERE. For some people, prayer and religious ritual is helpful, but rituals like these don’t necessarily have to be part of a religious tradition.
Grief is a natural response to loss, and when we feel it, we should honor it. But we can also allow it to expand and educate us. Rather than focusing only on external events, the gift of grief can lead us to inner transformation.