Why We Feel Real Grief Over The Loss Of Someone We've Never Met

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When the news broke that basketball legend Kobe Byrant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna had been killed in a helicopter crash, people all over the country were devastated. As the Empire State Building lit up in Lakers colors and memorials were set up outside the Staples Center in L.A., fans who never met Bryant cried real tears of grief—and they continue to do so almost a week later.

Grieving the death of a celebrity is common, but it can bring on complicated emotions. Some feel guilt or shame over it, wondering if there's something wrong with them that they're so devastated over someone they didn't actually know. As strange as it might be when you really examine it, this type of grief is actually very normal. Here's why you feel it, and what what you can do to process it.

Why Do We Grieve Celebrity Deaths?

If you're lucky, you've maybe met one or two celebrities in your life, but you somehow feel connected to many more than that. Whether they're actors, musicians, politicians or athletes, the people we see on TV or hear coming out of our car radios come to mean a lot to us over time. So when we lose them, we experience real feelings of loss. And often they're similar to how we feel when we lose a friend or family member. "These people truly become part of our lives in some way, even if it's passive," explains holistic psychotherapist Alison Stone. "We also tend to hold strong respect and admiration towards them, which are emotions that constitute positive connection."

Meet the Expert

Alison Stone, LCSW is a New York-based holistic psychotherapist who specializes in helping individuals manage anxiety, navigate transitions, and thrive in their relationships. She received her undergraduate degree from Emory University and her masters degree in social work from New York University. Prior to opening her private practice, she spent six years working in outpatient addiction and mental health clinics.

We also come to identify with aspects of who they are beyond their profession. For example, Kobe Bryant had a strong relationship with his daughters—so if you're also close with your father, you might be hit particularly hard by this. "This fosters a unique sense of empathy and identification with celebrities, despite never having met them," explains Stone.

The main thing to keep in mind—especially if you're feeling guilty or weird about how sad you are—is grieving a celebrity death is entirely not uncommon. "In the case of Kobe Bryant, many people grew up idolizing him, and therefore it feels like we are losing a friend, or someone who we considered to be a part of our lives," says Stone. "And remember, it could also be because we relate and identify with aspects of who they are—being a good father, for example. We imagine how we might feel if it was our child who lost their father."

And on a deeper level, hearing about the death of someone can also trigger old feelings of grief regarding a loss you may have personally experienced. And that's completely normal, too.

How to Process These Feelings

Now you know grieving a celebrity is a common experience, so you should feel free to honor those feelings. As you start to work on processing this grief, Stone says the first step is to normalize and accept it.

Next, let yourself be sad and ride the waves of your emotions. "Sometimes there is nothing more to do than simply be sad for a while, and let yourself acknowledge that," Stone says. "If the feelings intensify, become overwhelming, or do not dissipate with time, I'd encourage people to consider what is being triggered in them by this particular death or situation."

Don't Be Afraid to Seek Help

And as always, don't be afraid to seek the advice of a mental health professional. That's what they're there for, after all—and psychologist Marianna Strongin says many of her patients have been talking to her about the grief they feel over Byrant's passing. "I urge them to let it out and talk about it all. I suggest friends connect on this matter and mourn together, too," she says. "The most fascinating thing about the death of a shared figure is it has really brought people together. Regardless of differences, there are a lot of people who feel similarly about this tragedy. It should be a point of connection." 

Remember, mental health experts are trained in helping people process grief, so if you find you're dwelling on feelings of sadness for what feels like too long, talk to someone who can help you move through your grief in a healthy, mindful way.

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