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Dealing with grief: why it’s OK to feel sad about the death of a celebrity

The death of someone in the public eye can affect you more than you might think. Here’s what to do if you’re impacted by grief, according to an expert.

Do you remember where you were when Princess Diana died? 

I can. It was the morning of 31 August 1997. Aged seven, I was up and out of bed earlier than my parents, who were still asleep on a summer’s Sunday morning. I ran downstairs and turned on the TV to the news that the nation’s princess was dead. I ran to tell my parents only to be met with a mumbled, ‘Don’t be silly, go back to bed,’ as they dismissed me impatiently, turning over to go back to sleep.

An hour later, my mother and grandma were crying in the front room as they watched the news unfold to a heartbroken nation. Did I understand the gravitas? No. Did I care? A bit. 

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Fast-forward 22 years and my relationship with the death of a celebrity is very different. With age, the loss of someone I admire has started to hit much harder. 

I still have a clipping, in a protective folder, of the legendary restaurant critic A.A Gill’s final feature announcing his cancer diagnosis. I visited the restaurant in which chef Anthony Bourdain, who sadly died by suicide last year, famously ate with Barack Obama in Vietnam.

As a food and drink journalist by trade, the work and writing of these men are a constant source of admiration for me, and their deaths left a sizeable mark on my life, both personally and professionally. Most recently, the sudden death of YouTube star and mental health advocate Emily Hartridge in the UK’s first fatal electric scooter accident last year caused in me a kind of existential crisis that I’ve not experienced before.

It does not completely surprise me when people see others’ grief for the death of their favourite famous person as ‘snowflake’ or ‘woke’ behaviour. But there is psychological grounding in this phenomenon. 

Experiences of grief, sadness, shock and anger are normal responses to losing something, or someone, we are emotionally and psychologically connected to,” clinical psychologist Dr Kirsty Read tells Stylist. “It doesn’t matter if that someone or something is a family member, a pet or a celebrity we’ve never met before. It is about the meaning they have in our lives and the ‘bond’ or connection we feel towards them.” 

This is perhaps most prevalent when it comes to the death of musicians. A Facebook post asking my friends which recent celebrity death had the most impact on them had a flood of replies, the majority being from the music world. David Bowie, George Michael and Chris Cornell, unsurprisingly, came up time and time again (with one friend even claiming she nearly took the day off work after hearing of Bowie’s passing). 

dealing-with-grief
Dealing with grief: “In the case of artists and musicians, often their art encapsulates and expresses feelings and experiences we may find difficult to put into words.”

Tamsin Embleton, a psychotherapist who works with people in the music industry, sees the relationship between death of a musician and grief as a clear one: “In the case of artists and musicians, often their art encapsulates and expresses feelings and experiences we may find difficult to put into words,” she explains. 

“That can be cathartic, healing and resonate deeply. They can help us to access deep feelings and through experiencing their art, sometimes these feelings are transformed into something new.”

Amy Winehouse died while I was at the end of my university degree. Her music had accompanied my move to, and early experiences in, London, and her death marked not only the end of an important stage in my life, but also reinforced a feeling of uncertainty. 

“Sometimes these figures grow up alongside us and their art is ‘with’ us at pivotal points,” agrees Embleton. “I remember listening to Bowie’s A New Career in a New Town when I moved to London. The times I saw him live felt special and charged with emotion.”

What that doesn’t explain though, are my feelings when Emily Hartridge died. I discovered her page through a mutual interest. Her Instagram feed was awash with posts (both sad and amusing) of her dealing with her mental health battles, and most mornings I watched her stories or kept up with her mental health awareness page, Brain Buddies. 

On the day she died (12 July 2019), I went to visit her page to see a post announcing her passing in a tragic accident. For someone who is already preoccupied with premature death, it started months of existential panic and a sense of underachievement. Her work on normalising mental health was something I, as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, found invaluable. I’m still feeling the effects.

Among the responses to the aforementioned Facebook post, I had a few direct messages concerning Mike Thalassitis, the Love Island star who died by suicide in early 2019. Some of the people who messaged me that day had not even watched his stint in the reality TV show, but knew more of him through social media. 

“When I heard Mike Thalissitis had died by suicide it floored me,” said one. 

“I never even watched him on Love Island, I just found it profoundly sad,” echoed another. “I think it’s because through social media you see so much more of their lives… it looks brilliant and then when something like that happens you realise it isn’t.” 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my feelings after Hartridge’s death, who I discovered on social media, had more of an impact on my life than those of more mainstream celebrity.

Dr Read says this is a new phenomenon, but completely normal. “Our sense of connection and ‘closeness’ to a public figure may be strengthened [by social media], often making us feel as though we do know the person,” she said. “While this can be meaningful and enriching to our lives, it can also mean that the loss of that person feels more profound.”

grief celebrity death
Dealing with grief: "I’d like to think that the grief I was so ashamed of before has been turned into a determination to do the things I find important in my life, sooner rather than at a time when it may be too late."

After learning of Hartridge’s death, I felt a sense of shame in feeling grief for someone I didn’t even know. I was not alone in my feeling of loss – the post announcing her death had over 30,000 likes – but crying over the death of a stranger? I felt embarrassed. However, Dr Read says we are entitled to these feelings of grief: “Feeling intense emotions around celebrity deaths is a common experience and it is important to allow yourself to feel whatever you feel.”

There was so much that Hartridge wanted to do with her life (the day she died she was reportedly on her way to a fertility clinic) and the fact that she can’t is truly heartbreaking. 

How to deal with feelings of grief around the death of a celebrity

Below, Dr Kirsty Read, clinical psychologist, provides expert tips on how to deal with grief following the death of a celebrity.

Give yourself permission and time to grieve. Remember to look after yourself along the way. Try to maintain your regular routine, doing self-soothing activities, spending time with friends and family, talking with others about your feelings, trying your best to eat well and ensuring you have enough time for rest. Over time, it is likely that the grief will lessen and there will come a time where you are better able to adapt to life alongside the loss.

Remember that even though the celebrity is no longer physically here, your connection with them, and the impact on your life can still remain. Consider how you might continue your connection or bond with the celebrity. For example, you could continue to listen to their music, visit the places that remind you of them, contribute to a cause you are both passionate about, write down your memories, commemorate them or hold onto some items which represent your connection to them.

Seek help if things become too difficult to manage. Although it is natural to feel emotional or grieve after a celebrity dies, if this goes on for quite some time and you are finding it hard to carry out your daily activities, you may benefit from some increased support. This might involve talking to your GP, a support organisation such as CRUSE or a faith/spiritual advisor. 

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For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90 or visit a local Samaritans branch.

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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