The Experience of Grieving Someone We’ve Never Known Intimately

It can’t be. Is this fake news?
On Sunday January 26, 2019 after I left church and checked my social media pages on my phone, I read a rather vague yet millennial (smile) comment about the tragic death of superstar and celebrity athlete Kobe Bryant. The facebook post read: I’m not a celebrity R.I.P. guy, But not my man KB 24/8 with a sad face. KB? Who is he talking about? Celebrity? I immediately googled death and KB and the headline of Kobe Bryant dying in helicopter crash engulfed and left me feeling devastated.
It can’t be. Is this fake news? Again, I wasn’t certain this was true.
Most people remember where they were and what they were doing at the time of significant life events. I recall my mother sharing where she was, what she was doing and how she felt at the news of the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and how the news shook the black family homes and the world at large. I was on a college campus where I was a professor of psychology in Pennsylvania when 911 happened. I remember the professor next door to my office had a television set in his office (he taught world history) and shared the news with the staff on that hallway. I immediately ran to use my cell phone to call my loved ones and to see where everyone was at the time. Sadly, the cell phones were jammed and I couldn’t reach family and friends for several hours. In that moment I felt fear and was paralyzed. What would we do if this happens again? How will we plan for another major crisis like a terrorist attack? I knew my family needed a plan.
I remember mourning the loss of the late Princess Diana, Princess of Wales and staying up all night the day of her funeral procession and watched with the royal family on television and weeping for her children, Prince Harry and Prince William.
I recall the loss and the streets of New York celebrating the tragic loss of Notorious BIG, aka, Biggie Smalls (yea, I have pretty eclectic taste).
All gone too soon. All taken away through tragedy.
As a Licensed Psychotherapist and Mental Health Expert I was recently asked to share my professional opinion on the following question, “Why does the death of someone we don’t really know personally have such a huge emotional impact on us and cause such great pain.”
KB’s loss wasn’t fake news. And as details started to flood social media, I noticed I became more and more sad …and even more devastated when I heard of his daughter being on the helicopter with him and passing. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to call.
I followed the news as details were released. Even though I didn’t know KB personally, I felt the loss intensely. Even while writing this article one day later it feels surreal. As a mental health professional, in addition to processing my grief, I realized that my community and the world at large is suffering. And yet most of us never knew KB personally; we knew him publicly.
How does a world heal the loss of someone they never knew intimately, yet felt the emotional pain and grief so immensely?
It’s called parasocial relationships—when a person expends emotional energy, their interest, their time, on a celebrity, or someone they don’t know personally. Parasocial interactions resemble face-to-face ones in terms of our thoughts and emotions about them, but they’re (obviously) one-sided. The intimacy we feel with celebrities is more palpable than ever because of social media. Because of media coverage and social media we are ever more present and observant of the day to day life of people we admire, like, and/or choose to engage with, albeit, miles apart and never intimately close.
The grief for a celebrity once they’re gone might end up taking up more emotional space than the feelings we had about them when they were alive. This could be related to the reality that grief can be so much more simple when it’s someone you don’t know. “Sometimes we grieve people we don’t know harder than we grieve the people that we do know because our relationships with them are so much less complicated,” says Norma Bowe, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey who focuses on death and grieving. “Our relationships with our family members are complicated. Relationships we have with our significant others are complicated.”
Parasocial interaction (PSI) is a term coined by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956 to refer to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television.[1] Viewers or listeners come to consider media personalities as friends, despite having limited interactions with them. PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, fictional characters, social media influencers) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them. Repeated exposure to the celebrity gives users a sense of predictability in their actions, which engenders a sense of loyalty.
“Grief is not one emotion, grief is a series of emotions and there are ways to help oneself and those around to cope in a way that can keep their head above water.” Offered by Dr. Faith Wokoma, Psychologist and Pastor.
Even though it has a name, a descriptor, (parasocial relationships) it nonetheless does not lesson the pain, grief, and anxiety many of us are feeling. I do offer the following in comfort as we will continue to grieve his loss for months and for some- a lifetime in the name of self care.
1. It is okay to grieve the loss of a celebrity, superstar, etc.
2. Embrace your feelings. Do not suppress, hide, or deny sadness. Cry as necessary without feat of judgement. Be angry. Be sad. Be anxious. Be whatever that emotion is…sit with it and then cope with it in healthy ways.
3. Connect with others. Reach out for support. Avoid isolation.
4. Talk to a professional if needed.
We pray for each and every loved one and family member of the precious lives loss that day. We grieve and mourn with you.
The story wasn’t supposed to end this way.