Why celebrity deaths feel like a personal loss, from a grief educator

  • Terri Daniel is a clinical chaplain, certified trauma professional, and end-of-life educator certified in death, dying, and bereavement by the Association of Death Education and Counseling.
  • When a celebrity dies, a figure we’ve projected on is suddenly gone — and that breaks down our assumptions of how the world works.
  • But this is also an opportunity to teach ourselves how to become more resilient and let go of those assumptions of safety.
  • We can learn to lose our belief in specialness, grieve together, and create ceremonies to honor our pain and grief.
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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 television shows are projections on a screen, the celebrities we admire often function as blank screens that we project fantasies of ourselves on 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, seeing them 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.

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 their 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 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:

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