This article originally appeared in Business Insider on Feb. 12, 2020
A grief educator explains why the death of a celebrity feels like a personal loss,
and what we can learn from it
Most of the time we only see celebrities at their best, looking like royalty on the red carpet or scoring a game-winning shot on the basketball court. Sometimes we see them at home, being interviewed in their fabulous mansions, surrounded by their beautiful spouses and adorable children. Although we know rationally that they are just as vulnerable to misfortune as we are, we tend to worship them, seeing them far above the mundane concerns of everyday life.
So when they experience tragedy — death, suicide, drug addiction, scandal — it feels personal because we've given them so much emotional investment. The projection bubble bursts, and we lose part of ourselves. Another bubble also bursts: the one that contains the illusion that wealth, beauty, and status can somehow protect us from harm.
The experience of loss and trauma breaks down our assumptions about how the world is supposed to operate. Even though we know that our assumptions aren't reliable (such as "a child shouldn't die before their parents" or "marriage should last forever"), we cling to them because without them we wouldn't be able to function. We wouldn't marry or have children. We wouldn't leave our houses or drive our cars if we didn't assume that we'd get home safely.
While we can never be fully prepared for the unexpected, we can teach ourselves to become more resilient by reframing the way we look at the world and relaxing our grip on our assumptions of safety. The less attached we are to those assumptions, the more competent we can become at navigating our losses. Because there will be losses — it can't be avoided.
Here are some tips and tools for cultivating a more resilient spirit:
1. Strengthen your inner resources
The American Psychological Association identifies certain inner qualities that may contribute to a person's capacity for resilience:
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
- Skills in communication and problem solving
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses
If you are lacking in any of these areas, work on strengthening them through therapy, meditation, and self-improvement practices. This is not an easy process or a quick fix. It might involve working through past traumas, breaking free of cultural or religious conventions, healing family issues, improving time-management skills, and changing life-long habits like procrastination or conflict avoidance.
2. Lose your belief in specialness
The rich and famous are no more special than the lonely and destitute. We're all equal in the cosmic scheme of things, regardless of our bank balances or which god we pray to. Recognize that your assumptions about safety and protection are illusions, and practice loosening your grip on them. We can learn a lot from theologies and belief systems that teach about accepting impermanence and practicing non-attachment.
3. Grieve in community
Our projections and emotional investments in celebrities cross national, racial, religious, and cultural lines. A public loss gives us an opportunity to grieve in community, which is something that, in America, we don't often get to do when coping with personal losses. Community grieving opens a door, for a brief moment, to a place where we all stand together, where it feels safe and supportive. Sadly, when the news cycle is over, we go back to our insulated, disconnected lives, until the next tragedy invites us to go through that door again.
4. Create meaningful personal ceremonies
for honoring grief and releasing pain
In addition to connecting with community, I teach my students and clients to use ritual and ceremony as much as possible. Public memorial displays are a perfect example of this. They move the energy of sadness and pain from within our bodies out into the external world, where it can be seen and shared. Ceremonies like this can also be done privately, by simply lighting a candle, or more elaborate. For some people, prayer and religious ritual is helpful, but rituals like these don't necessarily have to be part of a religious tradition.
Grief is a natural response to loss, and when we feel it, we should honor it. But we can also allow it to expand and educate us. Rather than focusing only on external events, the gift of grief can lead us to inner transformation.