In light of Kobe Bryant’s tragic and untimely passing on January 26, the question of why we grieve so deeply when a celebrity dies is intriguing. We learn about deaths nearly every day from all corners of the world often straight from devices already in our hands. But when a well-known figure passes away, especially so unexpectedly, we can be profoundly affected. Why?
Are we in fact a country obsessed with death, especially celebrity death, as America’s oft-cited reputation suggests? If so, are we fascinated with death for sensationalistic reasons at the expense of others? Or does celebrity death captivate us for deeper, more personal reasons?
Whatever the reason, here is what we do know. History shows that we are all capable of forming significant psychological attachments to individuals we have never met, including celebrities, rock stars, actors, athletes, and politicians. Many people consider their favorite celebrities as intimate extensions of their family and friends circle.
We know where they shop, where they dine, where they take vacations, sometime even where they live. Social media outlets give us such detailed and frequent contact with celebrities that we feel we know them personally. Therefore, when a celebrity dies, the loss is often personal because the person has been a part of our everyday lives. Our connections to them are so entwined with our developmental and cultural history that when they pass, a little part of us dies with them.
Celebrities are representations of the best versions of our selves — successful and seemingly invincible. Icons of talent and brilliance. They are role models for youths and older adults alike. Many represent standards for the kind of hard work and integrity to which we relate and aspire to. Hence, by association, we feel that same collective uniqueness. By association, these luminaries make us feel important and worthy of that same kind of greatness. But when they pass away that perceived uniqueness or greatness vanishes.
Kobe Bryant’s superhuman skill, passion and confidence on the court, inspired his fans to assume a “take the bull by the horns” attitude and always be tenacious and determined. Kobe had such a competitive fire in him to succeed that, to his fans, it was contagious. Anybody who rooted for him felt it. Those who rooted against him feared it. Kobe was that great. He was a great player, a great motivator and a great leader.
Another thing that happens when a celebrity dies is we become more aware of our own mortality, our vulnerability and our brief, fleeting existence. We start to ask ourselves questions: Are we next? Are we prepared to leave this earth so soon? We also think about our own loved ones, too. We begin to project what it would be like to lose them. How would we handle it? How would we go on living?
Bryant’s passing reminds us of the ultimate dark truth we know about but do not like to face, that death comes to all of us, even the talented and famous. This is because celebrities become permanent fixtures of our conscious reality. They represent that invincibility we all wish we possessed. We see them as god-like figures that will live forever.
Celebrity deaths also bring out among us a sense of social solidarity. Ironically, their deaths provide a rare opportunity for unanimity and empathy on a community level. We are connected across race, political affiliation, social status or economic.
It helps people connect and be part of something. Public memorials and funerals are about giving survivors an opportunity to process death and grieve in a healthy manner, instead of isolating from social interaction and preventing the human heart from naturally feeling the pain of loss. Grieving the departed is as organic and necessary as love itself.
Generations and centuries past, funeral processions marched through villages and cities, inspiring entire communities to pause together and show respect. Mourners congregated in town squares and places of worship to process and discuss the deaths of neighbors and friends. They gathered to share their grief so that their pain could be witnessed. They gathered to show that the departed person’s life mattered. It is still now as it was then. Survivors heal by showing up for and comforting each other.
I believe that after Kobe Bryant’s passing along with the eight people who lost their lives last week, including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, the city of Los Angeles and perhaps the entire world could use some comforting.
Maybe we are not a culture obsessed with death. But instead, a sensitive and compassionate culture that feels deeply when someone important to us dies, even when we don’t know them personally. We idolize greatness and achievement. And we especially admire those who bring excitement to our ordinary lives. Thank you, Kobe. We are forever in your debt.