The Psychological Reason You Can Grieve a Celebrity's Death

Parasocial relationships explain why some people feel intense sadness over the loss of someone they never knew.

Hands Holding an Object Shaped Like a Heart That's Cracked Down the Middle
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When I learned that professional dancer and TV personality Stephen Boss (aka tWitch) had died, I felt my heart sink. I never knew Boss, but I'd witnessed his incredible talent and watched social media content featuring him and his family — including upbeat dance clips and more serious videos, such as a look at how white privilege manifests in day-to-day life.

Within hours of the news breaking, my social media feeds were filled with tributes to Boss. And it wasn't just people who knew him personally (such as Ellen DeGeneres, who worked alongside Boss on her eponymous talk show, or fellow professional dancers) expressing profound heartbreak over his passing. It was also people who only ever met him through the screen.

Feeling sadness for what is an undeniably tragic loss is to be expected. But particularly in today's world, where celebrities often let fans into their lives via social media, that sadness may veer into grief. If you're experiencing this right now, you're not alone, and what you're feeling is valid.

Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities

Grief for someone you don't know personally can arise because people can form parasocial relationships with public figures, according to Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a cognitive-behavioral psychologist and author of Goodbye, Anxiety: A Guided Journal for Overcoming Worry.

"A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship," she explains. A person can develop a parasocial relationship with a figure in the media, such as a celebrity, a fictional character, or even a social media influencer. "Typically someone that they do not know personally, but admire and relate to," adds Bacow.

"Often, people invest time and energy in their parasocial relationships, and it can be very upsetting when the person dies," she says. "On a psychological level, the loss triggers empathy and compassion as well as loneliness." For instance, you'll miss seeing a celebrity on TV, in movies, or on social media. "People often struggle with change, and when someone dies that you have been 'following' this can come as a shock and require a period of adjustment."

The Impact of Social Media On Parasocial Relationships

Part of why celebrity losses may hit harder these days is because public figures have given people access to their lives via social media. Boss and his wife, Allison Holker, for example, shared so much content featuring their family. "[You] learn things about [public figures] on a personal level, which makes the investment feel more intimate, and thus it is even more upsetting to learn that they have passed away," says Bacow.

Maybe you experience guilt when grieving a person you never knew. Perhaps you feel like you have no right to be sad over their passing as others are clearly more directly affected by it than you. But there's no need to feel guilt over your grief, according to Bacow.

"Remind yourself that you are only human and that you have feelings," she says. "It is a sign of being human to feel grief and to experience sadness when someone you care about dies, even if you did not know them well. It simply means you have compassion, and you invested energy and care in admiring someone's work or content." Feeling grief over a celebrity's death is "especially normal" when someone dies at a young age or in an unexpected way, she adds.

Processing a Celebrity's Cause of Death

The circumstances surrounding Boss's death, which was reportedly caused by suicide, may make this particular loss even more challenging for the public to process, according to Bacow. "It can also feel shocking to realize that the celebrity was suffering and in such distress and [seemingly] no one realized it," she explains, offering the death of Robin Williams as another example of this situation. "I think it is hard enough to grieve someone you like and admire and even harder to process that the method was suicide. Perhaps this might make you feel that you did not know them at all."

If you're struggling to process Boss's death — or the loss of any celebrity or public figure — Bacow has advice. "First, allow yourself to feel your feelings," she says. "Do not ignore them or suppress them. It does not matter how well you knew or did not know the person. It is okay to be sad," she continues.

"It can also be incredibly helpful to talk about or write about your feelings," suggests Bacow. "Share your dismay with other people that admire the public figure (or even those that don't). It can be helpful to journal or even share a post that you are missing the person."

Whatever you do, don't keep your emotions bottled up, she says. "If you find that you are overly preoccupied, however, it may be time to seek more professional support, such as engaging a therapist."

If you or someone you know needs help, please call 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or text 741741, or chat online at 988lifeline.org.

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