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Sunday, November 1, 2020

Why do we mourn people we don’t know?

By Nannette S. Funderburk, PhD, LPCS / October 2, 2020

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When celebrities die people who didn’t know them often grieve, it has been said before that grief is the tax one pays for loving. Feeling a sense of loss when a public figure dies is akin to this.

In recent weeks notable people have died; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, earlier in the year Breonna Taylor, and in January, Kobe Bryant. People mourned, and still mourn, their deaths but most of us didn’t know these public figures. Why do we mourn people we don’t know?

To answer this question, we must review how we came to know these public figures. What initially made these figures public? In the case of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we need go no further than her famously held nickname, Notorious RBG. No one gets a nickname that has not engendered a feeling in us. Justice Ginsburg connected with many women who felt unseen and unheard. She spoke up passionately for what she believed served marginalized communities and offered strong dissents. Through this many felt like she was speaking up for them. Chadwick Boseman, alternatively, was another representation of culture. The movie, Black Panther, in which he played the main character, King T’Challa, was perceived as a representation of our royalty as African Americans. Children wanted to be him or be in the army of women who protected him. The movie instilled a pride that swelled within our community. We all chanted “Wakanda forever!” in support of this fictional nation. This was the first Black superhero and we connected with that. It felt like an achievement for us all. Conversely, when Breonna Taylor was killed, we easily thought “That could have been my ______” fill-in-the-blank; my daughter, my sister, my niece, my girlfriend, or even me. We related to how that tragedy could have knocked on our door and fearfully wondered, “Will it?” Kobe Bryant was similar in that he was beloved to many. Many people came of age with Kobe and even wanted to be Kobe. His jump from high school to the NBA instilled hope in many young boys that maybe they could do the same. They lived vicariously through him. His loss felt like our loss.

Many who have these feelings of sadness related to public figures are shamed for their feelings and some may attempt to hide their feelings. This leaves us to wonder, is it okay to mourn people we don’t know? The simple answer to this is yes. It has been said before that grief is the tax you pay for loving. Feeling a sense of loss when a public figure dies is akin to this. The love is not the same as it would be for a family member or friend, but it is a fondness or sentimentality for how the individual has contributed to your life.

So how do you handle this situation if you find yourself feeling grief after a public figure dies? We often see memorial sites with flowers, photos, stuffed animals and the like. This helps to acknowledge the loss in a respectful, reverent way. In those spaces, or in online memorials, individuals are able to discuss the significance of that person and what the deceased person’s life and death symbolizes to you. Connecting with other mourners can be helpful. If, however, you begin to notice that you are unable to control your thoughts about this person or you become preoccupied with thoughts of death, this is when you want to contact a therapist to help you process and move through these feelings. Grief for any person is a symbol of your humanity and one that does not need to be negated, but simply managed in a healthy way.


The S.E.L. Group, The Social and Emotional Learning Group, is located at 3300 Battleground Ave. Suite 202, Greensboro.
Phone 336-285-7173. Email: contact@theselgroup.com and visit: www.theselgroup.com.

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