Why we mourn the deaths of celebrities we never met

I wrote this story for Thrive Wire–check it out here.


Robin Williams, Princess Diana, Whitney Houston…you likely never met them, but felt pain when you heard about their deaths. Maybe you tweeted about their deaths or joined the “R.I.P…” Facebook group. Maybe you sat with friends and discussed your favorite moment in their lives. Maybe you cried.

Those reactions are natural for fans because the pain felt can be as acute as hearing that an old friend has passed away, according to researchers studying the unique phenomenon.

“They’ve been a part of our lives…we feel we know them, and we incorporate them almost as though they’re part of our families, though most of us recognize that they’re not,” says New York psychologist Alan Hilfer. But when grieving a celebrity goes beyond habitual mourning—like an inability to sleep, eat or function normally—there may be an underlying cause. Depression may be to blame. Sometimes a celebrity’s death drags up feelings associated with another death, like that of a family member.

Flowers for Princess Diana.

“If people have had a family death, they feel a more intense reaction at the death of a celebrity,” Hilfer says. But unlike in the death of a family member, a fan may struggle to find friends who are similarly mourning the celebrity’s death.

“People laugh at you for being emotional about the death of someone you didn’t even know…this reaction doesn’t help you work it through,” says Kansas State psychology professor Richard Harris, who published a study in 2012 on the effect. “Unlike real-life mourning, there is no social support for such grieving,” so fans turn to social media to create mourning communities online, Harris says.

After John Lennon's death.
After John Lennon’s death.

When Michael Jackson’s death was confirmed on June 25, 2009, several websites crashed from user overload. Google’s search engine shut down, perceiving it was under attack as millions of users searched for “Michael Jackson” at once. Twitter crashed as 5,000 tweets per minute mentioning Jackson were posted to the online community.

The lasting implications of celebrity deaths are also often financial ones as fans purchase their products as a means to get closer to them, according to a University of Missouri 2012 study.

The recent debut of deceased actor Paul Walker’s last film “Furious 7” earned $143.6 million in its opening weekend—a new record for films premiering in April. Meanwhile, Elvis Presley continues to earn about $50 million a year and Michael Jackson earns upward of $150 million a year.

Flowers for Amy Winehouse.
Flowers for Amy Winehouse.

Have you mourned the death of a celebrity? I certainly have. Most recently, the death of UNC basketball coach Dean Smith and singer Amy Winehouse. (A film about her life is out soon.)

Do you visit graves of famous people? Audrey Hepburn is buried just down the road from us and I’ve secretly been planning a trip to pay my respects.

Audrey Hepburn's grave.
Audrey Hepburn’s grave.

On my third date with my now-husband we visited the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Rockville, Md. My husband showed up for the date with a bouquet of flowers, but before I got any ideas he quickly said “these aren’t for you, they’re for Fitzgerald.” He’s lucky that I am a big Fitzgerald fan!

A few links:


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