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What Happens to Us When a Celebrity Dies? Here’s What a Psychologist Has to Say
What Happens to Us When a Celebrity Dies? Here’s What a Psychologist Has to Say
Image Credit: Laura Alston

What Happens to People When a Celebrity Dies? Here’s What a Psychologist Has to Say

When a celebrity dies, why do we feel like they're our own? Why do some of us not feel at all? Okayplayer spoke to a clinical psychologist to help us understand the different ways people react when someone famous dies.

When Princess Diana died the world stopped.

At the time of her death, in 1997, she was the most famous woman in the world at one of the most transitional moments in world history. In “How Princess Diana’s Death Was Reported In the Pre-Social Media World” Ben Kelly, editor at The Independent, writes that her “death was a story that came on the eve of a digital revolution that would transform the media, and the world as we know it.”

READ: Nipsey Hussle: More Than Music, More Than a Rapper

Historically, celebrity death has been disruptive— from the most beloved figures to the most controversial. But what’s changed is who is positioned at the top of the social pyramid and what parts of their deaths warrant that type of disruption in the lives of those looking up to them. In the podcast In the End: Celebrity Death it’s stated that community leaders were the celebrities of the past— political leaders, social leaders, religious leaders, and kings. “The higher someone’s social status, the more socially disruptive their death is, and the greater the effort that must be made to heal that breach that happens when they die.”

In a sense, celebrity is the closest model Americans have to royalty. And in many cases, the ways in which we mourn stars is similar to the ways subjects mourn the deaths of their monarchs.

Nipsey Hussle was a king in Crenshaw. Born Ermias Asghedom, Hussle was shot and killed in front of his Marathon Clothing store in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 31. The store was a symbol of his rise to success. He’d been transparent about his teenage years, where he illegally made ends meet in that same parking lot.

Hussle’s particular type of success in music felt singular because of how innovative he was with his marketing. His business acumen was equally as impressive as his body of works. With one Grammy-nominated album, Victory Lap, and a slew of strong mixtapes, he’d go on to have one of the most impressive independent runs in hip-hop history.

But his legacy transcends music. The most striking thing about Nipsey’s legacy is how he was given his flowers in real time. He was praised for his community work, commentary, and endeavors by his fellow artists and fans alike. And the message in his music had resounded across the country since he first grabbed the mic.

READ: Who Is Dr. Sebi & Why Is He Resurfacing Amid Nipsey Hussle's Death?

Hussle’s death became fodder for conspiracy as much as it has become a sincere time to question what lead to his murder and a moment to measure the magnitude of his music and message. As the internet and industry scrambled for information to share and conclusions to make about him, one thing became apparent: there is a pattern to how the public mourns the famous.Many celebrities have died violent, public deaths recently. The latest has been Nipsey Hussle, but he won’t be the last.

When a celebrity dies, it seems we go through the cycle of public mourning: finding their most profound quotes; posting their photos to social media; consuming their art in high volumes; analyzing and theorizing who they were and what they meant. We create narratives around their lives anchored by what we know. When a celebrity dies, why do we feel like they’re our own? Why do some of us not feel at all? Sometimes they mean something to us, other times we try to make them mean something to us. Most times, celebrity deaths signify something greater for ourselves and our society.

Okayplayer spoke with Dr. Danielle Forshee, a clinical psychologist and social worker, on the public and personal real-time reckoning with Nipsey Hussle’s death, empathy vs. emotional response, and the human condition to examine the cyclical pattern of reaction to help us understand how, why, and what we feel when celebrities die.

Can you describe the psychological process of mourning as it pertains to celebrity death? What are some common ways the public reacts to fame and death?

The psychological process of mourning when it comes to celebrities is very similar to the process of mourning when it comes to non-celebrities. The only real difference is we are typically mourning the loss of who we believed them to be and who we needed them to be. For example, we attach to celebrities because of similarities that we see in them when related to ourselves. 

[Nipsey Hussle] was from the inner city. People where he's from are likely to have a different response than those that are outside of that, like in a suburban area or in an area that they can't relate with inner city kinds of problems. People that are from inner cities, and people that grew up in that kind of situation, are more likely to have a heightened response to what happened to him because they see him as similar to them in some capacity.

With humans, when we see someone that may be similar to us — by means of background, socioeconomic status, the way we were brought up, experiences we've had — we are more likely to resonate with them and have a stronger response emotionally such as anger, discouragement, and grief. Even though these people don't have a personal relationship with him, they can relate on that level. Now, people that don't have any history of growing up in that way, or being able to relate in that way, they may be shocked and they may be shook by it, but not in the same way as those who can identify with him.

People who can relate to him on a personal level or any type of circumstance that relates to how he grew up are more likely to have empathy for him?

They're more likely to have a stronger emotional response.

“Stronger emotional response.” Empathy is a whole different ball game?

It's similar. Let's say I'm from the inner city and I have family in gangs and I heard about this. I would be really empathetic. It would hurt me at my core. I would be so affected by this that I could almost feel like it was someone that I knew personally.

If I was someone from the suburbs that had no history of knowing anyone that ever had this kind of issue and never been involved with gangs, but I thought he was a good person, I would be empathizing with the fact that this guy had a family because I have a family. I could see that he was probably a good dad and that's terrible that his family lost him. I could empathize with the sense of loss, not with anything else that was going on with him. My response emotionally wouldn't be as heightened as someone else’s, but my empathy would still be present because I could relate with the human emotion of loss.

How do we define “empathy” in psychological terms?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is an intuitive feeling of having in common a socially shared emotional experience. It is also our ability to take the perspective of someone else. When we have empathy for someone it does not mean that we agree with anything that that individual represented — it means that we can understand and feel the painful emotion of loss. Even if we don’t know anyone personally who was a victim of a violent crime, we can understand and share the feelings of potentially losing someone who’s very meaningful to us in our own lives.

It is likely that in the situation of XXXTentacion — because his death was portrayed live — that the neurobiological mechanism of empathy is being evoked in many individuals who have witnessed it. The reason we can feel the pain associated with XXXTentacion’s violent death is because when we see the images, our brain recognizes through mirror neurons that XXX was as victim of a violent crime and experienced pain. Mirror neurons are a brain cell that respond equally when we witnessed someone else experiencing something that we also have the capability of experiencing. 

When and how do people generally practice empathy towards others? Does this change at all when the dynamic between persons changes — like abuser and victim or celebrity and fan?

People don’t generally practice empathy on a conscious level. It is a neurobiological mechanism and it is an automatic response that our brain has. The purpose of empathy is to facilitate unspoken communication between individuals and is a survival mechanism. Before spoken language, humans only relied on the facial expressions and the body gestures and tone of people’s voices. Empathy allowed for a form of communication and understanding that facilitated trust, portrayed fear, so that you would know what situation was safe vs. not.

How does empathy tie into desensitization as it relates to seeing death in real-time?

When witnessed to violent crimes of people in real life, it is a different experience than witnessing violent crimes of people in the movies or on reality TV. The brain recognizes the difference and therefore empathy is likely to occur at the same level when witnessing real-life violent crime with a real-life person on social media.

On social media, especially in music or hip hop, when a celebrity dies, there's this cyclical element that happens. People start sharing quotes or looking for pictures of themselves with the celebrity or bringing up moments where they ever engaged with a celebrity and they start posting any little snippet of a moment with a celebrity. Some people have critiqued that to be centering themselves in someone else's death. What does that mean? What's happening there?

Whenever anyone dies and we have some kind of connection to them — whether it be a real life connection or perceived connection — when we're mourning, we're really empathizing and we have an emotional response. We as humans tend to have a need, a natural tendency, to really memorialize the life of that person and our relationship with that person. It happens 100 percent of the time when there is some kind of emotional connection to someone that's been lost. It's just a memorialization of the person and the relationship and what that person meant to them. Unfortunately, when people see those things on social media — people posting pictures of this person with the celebrity who passed — they interpret that to be, “that person's selfish, look they're making it all about them, they're trying to get fame.”That is unlikely the case in most scenarios, especially when people feel so connected to this kind of celebrity. It's really usually a memorialization of the relationship and the person.

Is there any type of barometer to gauge what a connection is? We’re able to differentiate between someone writing a heartfelt message and then posting a picture and someone just posting a picture in passing with a celebrity and saying something very simple or that sounds very disconnected, or a superficial or surface-level connection. Is there a way for us to talk about the different levels of connection?

An emotional connection is very difficult if not impossible to be measured because it's a subjective human experience. We can never know what it feels like to someone else — their level of emotional distress to something.

It's the same thing as when you go to the hospital and you're in the emergency room and you're in a lot of pain. The nurses and doctors have no idea what your level of pain is because there's no measure for that. It's a subjective thing. They go based off of what you say and your behavioral responses. Are you crying? Are you wincing? On a scale of one to 10, what's your level of pain? It's the same thing with emotional pain. There's no way for us to know. But also what we know is that different people have different responses emotionally to death, based upon their own life experiences and what it means to them.

The idea that someone would have a family member who died by violence and it's a repeated pattern of deaths that they're familiar with or a repeated pattern of experiences that they're familiar there any way that we can make that comparison to whole communities? We've had many violent celebrity deaths recently. On a societal level, if we've seen multiple deaths that are very similar, but on an individual level, we may not have seen those types of deaths or haven't had that personalized experience, do you see any patterns on a macro level in the way we respond?

To me it appears that people tend to have a very similar and consistent response to these types of violent deaths, which I expect that they would. It appears to be becoming more of a societal problem, the violence that is going on... Violent deaths to suicides to school shootings. There's violence all around us and people tend to be responding in a very similar way.

Is that in any way related to this idea that we are desensitized to violence? This situation with Nipsey Hussle is similar to XXXtentacion’s. Both times there was graphic footage of the aftermath of them being shot. 

When people witness real crimes, these violent types of crimes in real life versus on TV, it's a different experience. When we're seeing it online, yes it's traumatic, but we call it vicarious trauma, not direct trauma. Vicarious trauma happens when we see someone we know or we know from a celebrity status. Our brain recognizes him as someone we know, but we don't know them on a personal level. We know enough about them; we listened to their music. We watched their life as a timeline.

When we see something like that on television, it is trauma, but it's a vicarious trauma. What that really means is, we don't actually get post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms as a result of it like you would if you were to see that in person. If we were to witness a violent crime like that in person, no matter who you are, even if you don't know what that person at all, you're going to have some kind of traumatic response, more fitting in line with PTSD. With watching something like this, more of a vicarious trauma, you're affected by it negatively on an emotional level, but you're not having traumatic responses like a PTSD survivor would.

[Hussle] was killed in front of a store on the sidewalk in L.A. Whoever was there that saw it, when they go near that store or that area of the sidewalk, they're likely to have a post-traumatic response when they go there again. The person who saw it in person is going to avoid that place because they're going to have a lot of symptoms associated with that place, like flashbacks and fear and hypervigilance and a lot of emotional things and memories that flash into their head because they were there in person. 

The person that saw it on TV won't have that kind of response. They're only going to feel very emotionally upset or affected when they're watching it because they can relate to the human emotion of, “I can't believe this happened.” That kind of shock.

It seems like when celebrities die, people compartmentalize their being. There are the fans who deify them and dismiss all their transgressions. Then there's another side who operates with a microscope on their transgressions alone and disregards the reality of their humanity or influence. Last year, Nipsey Hussle made a comment that was homophobic. Queer people took offense to that. We saw some queer people mourn, some didn’t. Is there any type of concrete way to describe what happens there?

No, because human beings are so complex. The queer people that are responding in support, they may have different beliefs or they may be able to forgive easier or they may have people in their personal life that they have to deal with that tend to be that way. It's really hard to measure why one would, but the other would not in this kind of case or in any kind of case where we have a death like this. No matter what, we're going to get varying responses because humans are complex emotional beings and we can't predict things and we can't, most of the time, even explain why people respond the way that they do.

One of the commentaries I saw from a queer person was that we never got a chance to see if Nipsey would ever evolve from that violent ideology. Can you gauge whether or not a person would be susceptible to learning and changing their ideologies? When someone dies — rather than operating with that framework of evolution as a way to scrub all the bad parts of their past — do you think it's a way for us to accept that people are complex in general and that we never know what could happen in terms of growth?

What that person said makes a lot of sense. That's a person that we're talking about, that person made that response about how maybe he didn't have enough time to grow or maybe he did and we just don't know. People tend to change their views on things as time passes, changing the way they see things and the way they experience life has a lot to do with that. Growing up has a lot to do with that. Learning about ourselves has a lot to do with that and sometimes people can just see it like that guy. He can just have some compassion and understand it from that perspective. Others just can't for one reason or another. But I don't think there's one answer for that. It's a very complex thing.

How would you describe the moral dilemma society faces while reckoning with a controversial or polarizing public figure’s death?

No matter what an individual’s history is, when there is a violent crime, empathy is a major player in the human response. Additionally, when there is injustice done to an individual, regardless of that individuals history, the injustice is likely to take precedence, especially if the injustice is conducted in a violent manner and is exposed in real-time on social media.

We tend to focus more on the immediate and the present and the injustice and violence associated with that rather than any violence or injustice a victim may have conducted themselves.

There are studies that people trust famous people more, hence the idea of endorsements; you trust the person, so you're going to buy the product. Is there any type of psychological terminology for the way society engages with famous people and celebrities in that way?

Why people equate such positive qualities to celebrities like smartness and success? Most people have a desire to be noticed, whether it be in their small-knit community, within their family, in relationships, or on a bigger level. People that are famous, they're well known and they get noticed.

We want to be at that level because we equate fame with getting noticed. If we get noticed, that must mean that there's some positive traits or qualities about us that people like… and everyone wants to be liked. Why would people equate positive qualities to famous people even if they have not technically engaged in good behaviors in a good portion of their life? It doesn't matter because they “made it.” Making it in this country means that you're famous, which means that people like you.