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When a celebrity dies, it’s normal to grieve. Sure, it probably indicates you had something of a parasocial relationship with that person (as they likely did not know who you are), but they may have meant something to you—even if those around you don’t seem to get it. Generally, people want to be helpful and kind when someone they love is mourning another person’s death, but when it comes to celebrities, they may think your grief is overly dramatic—and therefore, come off sounding like a real asshole.

Let’s go over how not to be that person when someone you love is grieving the death of that musician they never even saw in concert.

First, understand why people are upset

Bradley Bond, an associate professor and chair of communication studies at the University of San Diego, researches parasocial relationships, media representation, and the grieving of celebrities and fictional characters. He told Lifehacker that parasocial relationships are completely healthy, so it makes sense that individuals grieve when a celebrity they feel an attachment to dies.

Losing a celebrity’s presence in your life—whether voluntarily because they did something offensive, or involuntarily because they died—is known as a “parasocial breakup.” Research, he said, suggests that in these instances, the person with the parasocial relationship to the public figure experiences stages of grief that are similar to those they’d experience when losing a real-life friend.

That’s why, when your loved one is displaying substantial grief over a favorite child star, you shouldn’t say the following things:

“Why are you upset? You didn’t even know them.”

Not knowing someone might seem like it would disqualify you from being unnerved when they die, but in actuality, it has the opposite effect: When you don’t know someone, but see them on magazine covers or in movies, they take on a kind of mythical status.

“Celebrities represent elements of our collective consciousness,” said Brooke Sprowl, clinical director and founder of My LA Therapy. “When icons fall, it can shatter our comfortable delusion of safety … This can surface fears of our own mortality and those of others in our lives. This grief we feel is often the symbolic processing of death as a concept.”

“Were they even that famous? I don’t know who they were.”

You’ll see this response a lot with B-tier actors and actresses, comedians, and underground rap artists. It does not matter if you knew who someone was; their work was valuable to others.

“Not the obituary I wanted to read today.”

This phrase gets tweeted frequently after a celebrity or politician dies. To be clear, there’s nothing quite as asshole-ish as to use the death of a public figure to make it known that you wish someone else—maybe on the other side of the political aisle, or in a different category of celebrity—had died instead.

The maxim of “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” still applies when you’re saying something backhandedly, ostensibly “nice” about the deceased.

“Why wasn’t there this level of outcry when [other famous person] died?”

“We tend to develop social-emotional bonds with individuals we feel are authentic, we find social attractive, and who are like us in some regard,” Bond said. “I think that would pretty easily explain why we don’t have the same emotional reaction to every celebrity death across the board, because we don’t have the same level of social or emotional involvement.”

He noted that much of the research on parasocial relationships contrasts them with interpersonal relationships—because they are similar—and just as no one will have the same reaction when any two friends die, they can’t be expected to have the same reaction when any two public figures die.

“Who cares? They were just a [reality star/comedian/social media influencer/whatever].”

This one pops up when, say, a Vine star or reality show contestant dies. You may also see a version of this when a celebrity dies in a way that critics see as undignified or otherwise undeserving of respect. It’s unnecessarily rude and dismissive. When you die, pray no one says, “Who cares? They were just an accountant with 732 Twitter followers. They shouldn’t have been driving in low visibility.”

What to say instead

Bond suggested reassuring the person that it’s OK to feel how they feel and encouraging them to engage in “nostalgic thinking” by recounting some of their favorite memories of the person who died.

“The first step for that is validation, and maybe even more so in this case because … [with] a celebrity death, we may feel that that’s not warranted, yet we’re still experiencing it,” Bond said.

Ask what you can do to help them feel better, but keep validation top of mind.

 





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