Why Do We Mourn Celebrity Deaths? A Psychotherapist Weighs In

Naya Rivera

When the news broke that Glee star Naya Rivera had been found dead after an accidental drowning in Lake Piru, Instagram was flooded with photographs of the actress.

There were photos from her days as Santana Lopez on the hit TV series and others more recently of her and her four-year-old son Josey.

There was an outpouring of sadness, tributes from her co-stars, remembering “Our Naya” who was found on the seven-year anniversary of the passing of her Glee co-star, Cory Monteith.

Fans all around the world tuned in to hear the press conference held by Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub, announcing that her body had been found after a five-day search. Heartbreaking. She was just 33.

Upon mentioning this openly at my gym the morning they found her, I was met with resistance. One man even laughed in my face, and said: “Who cares?”

It made me a little angry. I care.

This interaction made question why and how we mourn a celebrity death, and why everyone deserves to mourn a death any way they want to. While some think it’s just sad, others are deeply affected by what has happened.

For me, the death of Rivera was unsettling for many reasons. I had watched Glee when I was younger, loved the character of Santana (who helped so much of the queer community) and mourned the loss of Monteith back then too.

Cory Monteith and Naya Rivera. Getty Images.

Rivera is only a year younger than me, Monteith only a few years older. Both lives lost too young and too soon.

Celebrity deaths have a way of reminding us that life is incredibly short and that everything can be taken in an instant — and this is one reason why we mourn them. Especially when it’s someone who feels so untouchable, like one of the world’s best sportsmen.

But, according to Clinical Psychotherapist, Natajsa Wagner, this isn’t the only reason.

“When a celebrity who we have felt connected to passes away, their death can often feel like a loss of that part of our past, hence our grief,” she said.

“We often feel connected to celebrities or people of influence, even though we may not have any direct personal connection to the person.”

Being present in our lives is more than enough reason to feel sadness over losing them, because “often we feel connected” to them.

“Whether we were children, teenagers or adults, certain celebrities may have touched or influenced our lives in some way,” Wagner said.

Connections don’t even have to be a meeting of the person. It could be a “childhood memory you hold close, like a movie, a sports event or concert or perhaps we had a special celebrity we looked up to whose values, ideals or message resonated with our own.”

This is the case when it comes to the death of Kelly Preston, actress and wife of John Travolta. We’ve all seen her movies and know her story, but her death shocked so many when the news broke on July 13, 2020.

At a minimum, people were sad for Travolta who is arguably one of the most famous celebrities of our time — who had already lost their son Jett, who was just 16-years- old when he passed away in 2009.

But more than that, it was a life lost to breast cancer, a battle she fought privately for two years, someone in the public eye who was strong, courageous and loved her family.


“We may even look up to certain celebrities, driven to be more like them or perhaps we had a special celebrity we looked up to whose values, ideals or message resonated with our own,” Wagner said of those we aspire to be like.

When basketball icon Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were killed in a helicopter accident in January, the news sent shockwaves around the world, and from the moment the news broke, tributes began to flow in.

Celebrities took to social media sharing memories and stories of how Bryant had impacted them in ways we couldn’t understand. Former President Barrack Obama sent his regards and Ellen DeGeneres broke down in tears on her TV Show.

Of course, fans of the former LA Lakers player shared their own tributes. Tweeting and retweeting quotes, sharing photographs on Instagram and even petitioning for the NBA logo to be changed.

The 62nd Grammy Awards (which occurred on the same day of Bryant’s passing) were dedicated to Kobe and Gianna, made even more poignant that the ceremony was coming to us live from the Staples Centre, Bryant’s home court.

When the names of the other seven people who had also lost their lives after the helicopter crash were released, people paid homage to their memory.

During a 20,000 people strong public memorial on the 24 February 2020, Vanessa Bryant paid tribute to her husband and daughter, thanking fans for the “outpouring of love and support” from around the world, calling it “uplifting.”

And while we certainly are not the Bryant family, nor close family and friends, you didn’t have to know Kobe and Gigi, or even know of him, to feel this loss.

Kobe Bryant
Getty Images.

For many people, Kobe Bryant was not only a role model, “but someone who they connected with through sport, TV, and in-person at games.

“He was someone who was a part of their everyday life, and they were used to seeing him.”

And according to Wagner, it’s only natural we want to pay tribute to them as it is “part of human tradition and part of our grief process”.

“In many ways, grief is about honouring the relationship we had with the person.

“In paying tribute there is an opportunity to have our own individual process of closure as we pay our respects to the person who has passed away.”

Natajsa Wagner is a clinical psychotherapist based in Brisbane, QLD. She combines Gestalt Psychotherapy, self-awareness and neuroscience to focus on creating positive, sustainable change & transformation, working with individuals, couples, and groups. You can find out more here.