What is it that makes us so darn affected by celebrities' deaths, whether they're untimely or not?
Almost all of us could name a celebrity's death that we've been affected by. Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson. Amy Winehouse. Steve Jobs. Even Nora Ephron's recent passing resulted in watch parties all over the world where people gathered together to watch her classic movies When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. But what is it that makes us so darn affected by celebrities' deaths, whether they're untimely or not?
It all comes down to feeling like we actually know the celebrity and have a relationship with them. First identified in the 1950s with the advent of television, psychologists coined the term for this type of one-sided relationship, parasocial interaction.
"Another way to look at it, is to say, the fan in his/her own mind projects and shares feelings, thoughts and fantasies with the celebrity, but the celebrity never reciprocates," says Patrick Wanis, human behavior and relationship expert and therapist. "An extreme version of parasocial interaction is the stalking of a celebrity — in whatever form."
And in today's modern media culture, where we know what celebrities are doing almost 24/7, celebrity tabloids and magazines feed this type of one-sided relationship. This kind of bond where we become emotionally invested and attached to them and their lives, leads us to grieve more deeply when they pass, Wanis, says.
"We also grieve more today over the death of a celebrity because of the narrative — the constant bombardment of every occurrence and every detail of the life of a celebrity leads us to believe that we have an intimate connection with them — that they and their lives are a part of us," he says.
Social media has also given us a new forum and opportunity to grieve publicly. For example, when John Lennon died in 1980 in New York, fans could only openly and publicly express their grief with flowers, wreaths and placards and by showing up to his apartment building. But when Whitney Houston died this year, millions of fans could grieve and exchange feelings and thoughts via Twitter and Facebook, Wanis says.
Now, not all types of celebrities affect us the same. Musical artists tend to illicit the most grief from fans because they have a deeply emotional impact on their fans. Wanis says that musicians and singers often help to shape our identity, self-image, fashion, attitudes and beliefs. Additionally, we usually emotionally identify with the impact of the musician/performer on various key moments in our life. For example, we might recall what we felt, the person we were dating, who we were, and what we were experiencing in our life when a certain song was popular.
"We grieve them more deeply than other celebrities because we feel we have that they can no longer continue to contribute to our lives — we have lost out on their next musical creation," Wanis says. "We also feel that we have lost that part of us — even the past part of us that we had connected and associated with the musician/singer — our adolescence, youth, innocence or some other special and significant time and phase in our life."
So, when it comes to grieving a celebrity's death, what's normal and what's not? While there are no estimates on what percentage of people grieve over celebrity's deaths, it's fairly common. Wanis says that grief from the loss of a parasocial interaction depends on the fan and his or her perceived connection and glorification of the celebrity and the impact that the respective celebrity had on the fan. Generally speaking though, the death of a celebrity does not affect a fan the way the death of a family member would affect the fan, he says.
While it is natural to cry, feel sad, or even be angry at the death of a celebrity, you should be aware of how long you stay in that state and get help if it lasts too long. If you are grieving a celebrity's passing, Wanis recommends asking yourself what the celebrity represented to you. Then look into what emotions you associated with him or her.
"Yes, he or she is gone but what they gave you is still here — the music, inspiration, emotions, memories, etc.," he says. "Even though the celebrity is gone in body, their spirit and impact on you remains, and you can still hold onto all the good memories and good times. They are yours!"
Also, consider looking for tangible things to hold onto that represent your connection with the celebrity like music, photos or magazines.
"Devote some specific time to mourn," Wanis recommends. "Gather with someone who shares or understands your feelings. Share the experiences and memories with other people. Celebrate what the celebrity gave to you — how they affected and impacted you."
Have you ever grieved over a celebrity's death? Who was it? I personally took Michael Jackson's death pretty hard because I had so many positive memories associated with his songs!
Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomedGirls.com and FitBottomedMamas.com. A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.