“Grief, in the popular imagination, is a sadness to be experienced and carried and borne as silently and as stoically as possible. And yet, mourning, too, has a public face: condolences, wakes, the sharing of memories and sympathies. This juxtaposition leaves many confused about how to celebrate the dead, how to comfort the living—how, in short, to grieve together,” writes Megan Garber of The Atlantic.
On July 26, 2020, TMZ reported the tragic death of Basketball Player Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others caused by a horrific helicopter crash over Los Angeles that same morning. Immediately after Kobe’s death was reported, there was an outpouring of public posts across all social media platforms—fans everywhere were grieving. More recently, Actor Chadwick Boseman’s sudden death on August 28, 2020, has elicited a similar reaction.
I can remember clearly the day Kobe Bryant died, where a mock trial competition at the University of Alabama garnered my attention. Finally able to check my phone at around 7 pm, the first text I read was from my younger brother: Kobe just died in a helicopter crash omg…dad is upset. I feel so bad, he just called me crying, he wrote. Kobe Bryant was both my brother and my dad’s all-time favorite basketball player and mine, by proxy. Feeling empty and sad, I was confused as to how the death of someone I had no personal relationship with, whatsoever, could make me feel such a way.
After the death of Chadwick Boseman, Twitter User BorntaLEAD posted, “I have been having a challenging time with the passing of Chadwick Boseman. In addition to feeling grief, a lot of the time I feel ‘crazy’ or ‘unjustified’ in my sorrow being that I didn’t know him personally.”
It is a strange feeling, mourning the death of someone you’ve never met.
Some may argue that this phenomenon itself is really what is strange. For every post that expresses grief regarding a celebrity’s death, there are those that address the absurdity of this so-called “celebrity-worship.” There are instances where individuals become overly involved in a celebrity’s personal and professional life—psychologists coined this disorder “Celebrity Worship Syndrome (Maltby, 2010).”
Extreme fans or stans are notorious for bullying individuals online with opinions different from theirs. They have stalked and harassed celebrities’ significant others out of jealousy, and some have gone as far as uncovering and exposing a celebrity’s personal address. To be clear, this behavior is not acceptable and an obsession, of any kind, is unhealthy. Nevertheless, fans of this sort are far and few between. A person does not have to “worship” a celebrity to be a fan; they do not have to be obsessed with a celebrity to be affected by their death.
As grief expands to digital platforms, so does grief-policing—the notion that there is only one way to grieve, and that deviation from that way is wrong. It is the tendency to tell mourners that, essentially, they’re mourning too much, or not enough (Garber, 2016). When David Bowie died in 2016, Spiked magazine released an article titled, “That thing you’re feeling about Bowie—it isn’t grief.” Editor Brendan O’Neil writes, “Grief is physical and mental pain. It’s oppression. It is, in the words of the OED, ‘hardship, suffering, injury.’ To feel grief is to feel ‘pained, oppressed.’ Are these Bowie fans suffering? Really suffering? No, they aren’t.”
When Kobe died:
The Kobe Bryant death overreaction is getting old. He was a great basketball player, no doubt. But he’s just a guy and had his many flaws. Be sad, grieve, send condolences to all families impacted but don’t act like this actually changes anything for you. It doesn’t (Reddit User, u/-thejmanjman-).
Again, after the death of Chadwick Boseman:
The timeline is silent about the death of hundreds of Amharas in Metekel, but they were flooding Instagram with pictures of Chadwick Boseman and Kobe a while back.
They will forever be irrelevant to me (Twitter user, mentesenot_T)!
Various social media platforms are filled with these “grief-police,” whose aim is to invalidate the feelings of others. They claim that what individuals feel when a celebrity dies is not real grief; they undermine this grief by alleging that “thousands die every day,” so, why are you sad that some celebrity died?
Mourning the death of a celebrity is neither as disingenuous nor as absurd as these grief-police would have you believe. An active identification with a celebrity leads many fans to feel they know a celebrity on an intimate level. Horton and Wohl coined the term parasocial
relationships (PSR) to describe a relationship that exhibits the illusion of intimacy between individuals and media personalities (Radford and Bloch, 2015). In their article, “Grief Commiseration, and Consumption Following the Death of a Celebrity (2015),” Scott Radford and Peter Bloch state, “The feelings of loss in a parasocial breakup are very real for the
individual, and the intensity of this loss is a function of the level of attachment felt towards the celebrity. If the end of the relationship is final due to the death of the individual, such feelings may be more intense.”
In 2013, after watching 42, a biopic on the life of Jackie Robinson, I became a fan of Chadwick Boseman. He was handsome, charismatic, and an all-around fantastic actor. When Black Panther premiered in theaters, I was there opening night. Portraying historical African-American figures such as Jackie Robinson (first black major league baseball player), Thurgood Marshall (the first black Supreme Court Justice), James Brown (the Godfather of Soul), and the Black Panther (Marvel’s first black superhero), Boseman was an embodiment of representation for the black community—myself included.
When giving a commencement speech at Howard University, his alma mater, Boseman stated: “Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.”
The news of his death was particularly shocking and upsetting to me, personally. This was a man who, being a symbol of strength for so many, kept his illness a secret. He filmed those iconic movies we love so much, all while battling stage-three colon cancer. The black community has been in a perpetual state of mourning this year due to the senseless killings of both black men and women at the hands of police, and the lack of justice for these murders. And, the death of Chadwick Boseman has significantly added to this collective grief. For me, and many others, he was much more than just the Black Panther—he was a real-life hero.
To the naysayers and the grief-police, I ask this: how exactly is it wrong to mourn a pivotal black figure in the community who inspired so many people?”
Posting pictures and videos, sharing clips from Boseman’s films, telling the world about first viewings of Black Panther, about what Chadwick Boseman meant and will continue to mean—this is not performative. It is, as Garber writes, “evidence of people doing what they always will: using the tools available to express themselves and share their feelings with other people. They are forming a community of grief.”
You are not crazy, your feelings are not unjustified—it is okay to mourn someone you’ve never met.
This article was crafted using primary and secondary sources. For more information regarding celebrity worship, mental health, and coping, please visit the following sources below:
O’Neill, B. (2016, January 13). That thing you’re feeling about Bowie – it isn’t grief. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.spiked-online.com/2016/01/13/that-thing-youre-feeling-about-bowie-it-isnt-grief/
Garber, M. (2016, January 20). Enter the Grief Police. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/01/enter-the-grief-police/424746/
Maltby, J., Day, L., Mccutcheon, L. E., Gillett, R., Houran, J., & Ashe, D. D. (2004). Personality and coping: A context for examining celebrity worship and mental health [Abstract]. British Journal of Psychology, 95(4), 411-428. doi:10.1348/0007126042369794
Radford, S. K., & Bloch, P. H. (2012). “Grief, commiseration, and consumption following the death of a celebrity.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 12(2), 137-155. doi:10.1177/1469540512446879