Losing someone we love always hurts. There’s no way around that. Grief can be a complex and sometimes inexplicable emotion. It’s no different when children are involved. We have talked at length about healing and working through emotional trauma after the loss of a loved one. But what happens when your child is grieving someone they’ve never even met?
Grieving the death of a celebrity is more common than you think, though it can be disconcerting for you as a parent to watch your child struggle with these very big emotions. It's impossible to navigate the world without at least a passing awareness of celebrities, whether through the films and television we watch, the music we listen to, or any other media we consume.
We see these people regularly even if they do not know we exist. Most of us recognize that the impact is only one direction -but for children? Those lines easily become blurred.
Feeling loss over the death of a celebrity is not unusual or alarming. Many people across the world feel the same. If your child is grieving the death of a celebrity, you may not know how to help them. With a little help, we hope to guide you through eight ways you can talk to your kids and understand how and why your children might be feeling this.
Understanding why your children feel the way they do about certain aspects is just as important as understanding how they feel. When it comes to children grieving the death of their favorite celebrity or public figure, these emotions are completely normal. Even though it might feel weird, it is far more common than you might think. Why do children and teens feel this way? Let’s explore a few reasons this might be.
Role models come in all shapes and sizes. We see them in parents, teachers, siblings, and public figures. Children often look up to celebrities. They see someone who has achieved great things – perhaps things they want to do or be when they grow older – and find inspiration in watching them live those dreams.
This is especially true when it comes to a favorite professional athlete or musician. They see talented individuals who have found success in their fields and may try to emulate that in small (or large) ways.
It may also come down to what influences the child has in their real life. We’ve heard many people talk about their favorite “TV Dad” when they were a kid or seeing an online influencer as a big sibling who gives them something to look up to.
Some children may not have biological parents who are living or are otherwise absent from their lives. These celebrities may make a child feel safe and they connect to them where they can't find connections in their real lives.
Because celebrities can be big parts of our daily lives in a myriad of ways. For children who see them constantly, they may associate them with strong emotions both good and bad. After all, they make us laugh and cry through entertainment or the art they create. We associate strongly with the characters they play and the storylines they’ve been part of in our favorite films and television shows.
They can give us an escape when life is too hard. How many of us have binge-watched the latest show with our favorite actor? Or slipped into a good book to ignore our problems for a few hours?
Children – and especially teens – may feel even more strongly about many of these things. They can take this connection to media (cartoons, movies, and television shows designed for them) and associate the celebrity with those happy feelings.
Finding out that person has died may feel like a loss of the original emotional connection they’ve forged. In those cases, they may not only be grieving the death of the person but also the loss of that association.
To further push the association between celebrities and emotional connection, let’s consider what happens when a child cannot separate those two. For very young children, it can be difficult to see the difference between a beloved character and the person that portrays them.
They grow attached to a fictional portrayal and may not understand that there is a difference between actor and character. For them, the person dying could mean that a favorite character is also dead.
Understanding the connection between real life and fiction can be important when helping your child through their feelings and grief. This isn’t just the death of a stranger. It’s the death of someone the child had spent hours and hours following (fictional) adventures and lives.
The key to understanding why your child (or why anyone) might grieve the death of a celebrity might lay in one concept: parasocial relationships. What is a parasocial relationship? Parasocial relationships are a type of psychological relationship where one party develops a strong emotional attachment to another party – often a celebrity or media personality – through their presence in the media. In this one-sided relationship, the party begins to view the media personality as something they know and believe they have developed a relationship with the celebrity.
It is not a bad thing by definition, as it does allow media personalities to interact with their followers. The concept isn’t a new one. The term was coined in 1956 to describe how a generation of people came to view radio and early television personalities. However, this relationship is an illusionary one. Most often, the celebrity is unaware of the person’s existence.
Today, these parasocial relationships can feel far more intense if only due to the increased spread of social media and the level of access normal people have with celebrities across the internet. Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter give regular people a more intimate view of the private – and public – lives of the rich and famous.
They can directly interact with these people without leaving the couch. Sometimes, they may even get a like or comment back in response! It can make fans feel seen by the object of their fascination, furthering the illusion of friendship.
For children, this further blurs the line between celebrity and friend. By their very nature, these are one- sided relationships. They may not feel like that is the case, however. Watching the public details of their lives being posted coupled with learning their thoughts and feelings on subjects gives followers the feeling of knowing them as people.
Very often, it may feel like the creator of a YouTube video is speaking directly to them. They may feel further connected to a musician who shares a personal story about a song or album that already resonates with a young teen.
These parasocial relationships can make the death of a celebrity so much more personal and heartbreaking than it might otherwise be. If you see someone on social media every day, watch them on television, and even comment on them through the internet, it can be devastating when that presence is no longer around. Parasocial relationships form in children for many reasons, including some of those we’ll talk about!
Children process death differently depending on their age. This goes hand-in-hand with their psychological and emotional development. When learning how to discuss death with your child, you must consider that development.
Very young children may struggle to separate fictional content – films and television, for example – from real-world events. Depending on how and why they felt this attachment to the celebrity, they may have difficulty understanding why their favorite character or media personality is just no longer there.
This may be a good opportunity to explain what death is, how it affects us, and that it’s okay to be sad once someone dies. Be frank with young children. Avoid vague language like the person is “gone away” or “no longer with us.” These terms are easily misunderstood and can be confusing for young kids.
Tell them directly that the person has died. Explain that death is permanent (but do so at a level they can understand). Help work them through what that means and how things will change because the person is gone. They likely won’t see them on television. They won’t be making videos on content on social media. Their favorite sports teams might change.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers. That might be frustrating (both for you and the child) but it is a good thing to be open about that as well. Understanding death doesn’t come all at once for anyone.
If you want a great frame of reference for how to have this difficult conversation, we recommend looking at the 1983 Sesame Street episode “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” as an excellent guide. In the episode, Big Bird is the child's perspective. The human adult characters help him understand that "gone" and "death" are separate things. This video may give you some ideas for speaking about the loss with a young child.
By contrast, teenagers process celebrity deaths quite differently than their younger counterparts. Teens understand the concept of death, but they may also have questions. Many times, the death of a celebrity is their first encounter with any kind of loss.
It may bring up some serious issues regarding the nature of death and what it means on a philosophical level. They may begin questioning aspects of life and mortality.
Teenagers may also turn to others (and the internet) to have these discussions and share their grief with those their age or in communities of other celebrity fans. Be prepared to let them come to you with their questions and give them time and space to process. However, just let them know you are available when they want to talk.
Helping your child through the grieving process isn’t always an easy endeavor. It’s hard to know what to say or when to say it. You may worry about pushing your child away or confusing them. The important thing is that you try to be there for them and understand why this grief might hit them so hard. These tips for helping your child cope with celebrity deaths should be used as a guideline, as everyone grieves differently and on their terms.
The best tip for helping your child during this time is also the easiest one. You must validate their feelings. What does this mean exactly? You should work to make sure your child knows that their feelings are normal and perfectly acceptable. Grief after a death, even if it’s a celebrity they have never met, is a real emotion.
They may be feeling confusion, uncertainty, despair, and even some disbelief. Sometimes these feelings are contradictory, and they may struggle to explain them. Be patient with them when they do come to you. Give them time to put these feelings into words. Don’t rush them into talking to you until they are ready.
Children need to hear that what they are feeling is real, that they are not overreacting, and that you won’t mock them for it. Be present for them when they are ready to hear that. They will need to hear it, even if they don't show it immediately. At this stage, it is important to put aside your feelings about the celebrity in question and focus on how that person made them feel.
Your job as a parent or caretaker is to listen to them, give them a safe space to talk about their feelings and make sure they know you aren't judging them for them. You won't be able to take away these emotions. You should focus on making them feel heard. Normalizing their grief is a great way to open the line of communication with your child. That way you can help them through the process of grieving healthily.
When your child comes to you, you may not know what to do with their grief. They likely don’t know either. When children struggle with their emotions, it can be difficult for them to express how much a celebrity mattered to them. One thing you can do to help is to encourage them to share the things they loved or appreciated about the celebrity.
They may have important memories associated with the celebrity that goes beyond that person. There may be favorite roles they would like to revisit, favorite videos online they want to watch or songs they'd like to play. Take part in experiencing these things with them if they share them with you.
Not only that, but you should also encourage them to share memories associated with that celebrity. Did they attend a concert? Watch an important game? Were they able to have a meet-and-greet? Or maybe this goes beyond these direct instances, and they have other memories that tie to their love of the celebrity. Perhaps their collective friends are all fans. They may have lots of emotional reasons and memories tied to that person.
When a famous person dies, it is nearly impossible not to engage with the aftermath of their death in even the smallest way. Most often, you may find that there will be some memorial held for them, whether on television or in an online space. You may want to encourage your child to participate in some way with those events.
You can watch any tributes or news pieces together. This will allow your child space to talk about how this makes them feel as well. There may be a local event to honor them as well.
If this is the case, you can bring your child to take flowers or some other memorial piece with them to this event. It may help your child – especially older children or teens – to be around other people who are experiencing the same emotions as them.
Memorializing the deceased can be done in many ways. One way to do so is in the creation of something to memorialize the deceased. For children grieving the death of a favorite celebrity, this can be helpful for them to process their feelings and create something meaningful to them in the process.
Some children may enjoy drawing, painting, or otherwise creating a work of physical art. For others, it might come in the form of creating digital art. Some children like to write poems, songs, or even short fictional pieces to express their emotions.
If you look online, you will find that many people – even professionals! – make tribute art to celebrities. For example, Elton John first wrote his classic "Candle in the Wind" as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, then later changes the lyrics in tribute to Princess Diana. County singer Waylon Jennings wrote "Old Friend" as a memorial to Buddy Holiday after he died in a plane crash.
If your child is the type to appreciate such things, you might want to consider having their artwork turned into a piece of wearable art. You can have the artwork scanned digitally and then turned into a piece of memorial jewelry.
You could have it photo-engraved on a bracelet like this Petite Stainless Steel Photo Engraved Bracelet along with a quote from the celebrity or something meaningful to your child. Or a more unisex option, there are Stainless Tower Photo Engraved Keychains like this rectangular one or others that come in various sizes and shapes. For more suggestions, you can read this guide on Choosing the Perfect Photo Engraved Jewelry.
Otherwise, your child might want to post their tribute online in some capacity, whether on a blog or some form of social media. Depending on their age, you may want to supervise this in some fashion. However, it can be helpful for them to have their voice heard to any audience when it comes to an expression of grief.
The benefits of keeping a journal through your grief are well-documented. The same goes for writing letters to the deceased. When you talk to your children about the personal significance a celebrity has to them, you might want to encourage them to write a letter to the deceased. Writing gives them a place to collect their thoughts about how the death has affected them and how much the person meant to them.
This is just another form of fan letter, though one that will not reach its destination. It matters to your child, especially when it comes to letting them spill their feelings without fear of reprisal or mocking. It can be a very personal, very cathartic thing.
If they are very young, you may want to help them write down their thoughts. You can give them writing prompts or just dictate the things they want to say. Just continue to reiterate that there is no wrong way to feel.
It does not hurt to turn to things that might comfort us in times of grief. For many, this comes from carrying on traditions that have spiritual or emotional value to use. For many cultures and religions, this may involve lighting a candle for the deceased. If your child would find it cathartic, you may include a candle lighting ceremony as part of a broader memorial you can hold at home.
You can use this as a time for your child to share details about what the celebrity meant to them. They can read any letters or poems they might have written. Conversely, you can hold a moment of silence for them as you light the candle.
This is a situation where you can let your child lead, letting them show you what might make them feel better in the long term. If nothing else, it helps you show your child that you are aware of how important this person was – and continues to be – to them.
There are other spiritual traditions you and your child may turn to in these times, including prayer or meditation. Many times, it is not even the act itself that is most important. It is the moments you spent together that let your child not feel so alone in their grief. If it brings your child solace, then it could be a worthwhile endeavor.
When someone is grieving, it’s very easy for them to sink into isolation with their thoughts and feelings. With a celebrity death, they may be trapped in an endless scroll through social media for updates and any news. If you see your child starting to do that, you want to take initiative to draw them out of this as much as possible. Instead of distracting them from this behavior overtly, try to be more discreet.
When you ask them questions, make sure to keep them open-ended. If you see them reading or watching something related to the celebrity's death, ask them what they are watching. Then, ask them to tell you about it.
Remember, it’s important to meet your children where they are without pressuring them to feel differently. Once you have their attention, you can gently suggest doing something else. This could be writing about their feelings, talking more about the situation, listening to music, or working on something together.
It’s important to be involved in your child’s life right now, no matter what their age might be. You may find yourself more involved with what they are doing and viewing online during this time. As we said above, it is common for an older child to retreat during this period. They may be grappling with questions about death and mortality. You may not have all the answers they need. That's okay. Giving them a couple of days to grieve is a good thing. It's also important to pay attention to them during this time.
If you are concerned about their mental well-being or if they are showing prolonged signs of stress or depression, you may want to take action. Are they withdrawing from social activities? Are they ignoring their friends and family? Are your children avoiding school? These are all signs they may require more support.
Make sure you are checking in with other adults in their lives. This includes their teachers, coaches, adults in any social groups they attend, or even with the parent of their friends if possible.
You should open lines of communication with these other people to make sure that they are aware of the situation. Being attentive to your child and their emotional state lets you know when you may need to consider some (gentle) outside intervention if necessary.
If you think your child may need additional resources to help them through grieving, there are many resources available.
Many mental health counselors cater to the emotional well-being of young children and teens. GoodTherapy.Org has a great search function to find viable therapists in your area.
Your child's teacher is a great resource when it comes to monitoring and intervening in any serious mental health concerns for your child. The teacher can keep you updated on any changes in behavior in the classroom as well as offer additional information and resources outside of it.
National Mental Health Association
Teenage Grief Sucks
National Alliance for Children’s Grief
Crisis Text Line
Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief. Rebecca Soffer & Gabrielle Birkner.
What Do We Tell the Children?: Talking to Kids About Death and Dying. Joseph M. Primo.
Through A Childs Eyes: Explaining death, organ donation, cremation, burial, and cemeteries to young children using terminology they can understand. Karen Longstreth
The Rabbit Listened. Cori Doerrfeld.
Why Do I Feel So Sad? A Grief Book for Children. Tracy Lambert Prater.
How I Feel: Grief Journal for Children: Guided Prompts to Explore Your Feelings and Find Peace. Mia Roldan
When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving & Healing. Marilyn E Gootman.
Weird is Normal: When Teenager Grieve. Jenny Lee Wheeler.
Yes, it absolutely is. It is very normal for children – and even adults – to grieve the death of a beloved public figure. Children commonly form attachments to public figures, especially those who have meaning to our lives. For a young child, it could be an actor portraying a beloved character or sports hero. For older children, it might be musicians to internet influencers to Tiktok superstars. Feelings of admiration or support for these celebrities are important and real, even if it may seem odd.
As we share more and more of our lives on the web, we also have more access to celebrities and their lives. The constant access allows us to develop parasocial relationships with people we don’t know in real life. A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship that a media user engages in with a media persona. One party expends a lot of energy, interest, and time to "knowing" the other party (which is often a famous person of some kind).
Meanwhile, the other party does not necessarily know they exist. Parasocial relationships often form with the help of social media and the internet. These relationships are particularly common with younger audiences – like children – and may affect how a child views the death of someone they have never met.
If you want to talk to your children about the death of their favorite celebrity, you need to meet them at their level. We know that can mean different things depending on your child's age and their ability to grasp the situation. Be honest and open with your child and ultimately, let them talk about this death as if it were someone close to them like a friend or a family member. For them, it may feel just as powerful a loss.
First, it’s important to use appropriate language when you talk about what happened to the celebrity. Try to stay away from euphemistic language (saying “gone to heaven” instead of using the words “death” or “dying”) even with younger children. With younger kids, it may be a good time to introduce the concept of death in a meaningful way. For older kids and teens, this might be the point that they begin to have bigger philosophical questions about death and dying.
Sometimes, your child can grow too attached to the death of a celebrity. They may constantly be looking at social media updates, making memorials, or even just speaking about them all the time. If you believe your child is becoming obsessive over the death of a celebrity, then it may be time to step in and intervene in the situation. First, you should think about talking with them directly about your concerns and check- in to see how they are feeling. If that does not have an effect, then it may be time to seek outside help.
You can reach out to a counselor or therapist. You may want to speak to your child’s school counselor to see if they have noticed any concerning behavior at school. You can speak with your clergy – a priest, preacher, or youth pastor – for more advice or to have them speak with your child.
There are many things you can do to help your child memorialize a deceased celebrity.
Within this context, children may express their grief in unexpected ways. To help them process their grief, it may be good to keep their usual routine for the first few days. After that, it can also help to do something to keep their mind off the topic. You may plan one of their favorite activities, cook their favorite meals, or even just spend some quality time together. You may also consider giving them a gift of some kind to help them through the moment.
If you think your child is becoming consumed by the death of their favorite celebrity, it may be time to seek outside help. If they are spending too much time on social media, obsessively consuming media featuring the deceased celebrity, or have troubling changes in behavior or mood that linger for longer than a few days, you may want to reach out to a professional for help. This can be a doctor, therapist, or even clergy member. There are also many age-appropriate books about grief that can help.
Take things slowly and carefully. It may not be in your child’s best interest to have unrestricted access to social media during this period. However, it may also be detrimental if you remove access altogether as well. For younger children, you may want to monitor them more strictly just to be sure that they aren’t exposed to potentially upsetting material. For older children and teens, it might be good to remain more hands-off unless you think there may be a problem or they seem to be overwhelmed or consumed by checking these platforms obsessively.
For many children, the death of a celebrity feels like losing an important friend or even a family member. Their emotions are very real and may be difficult to explain or process. As parents, teachers, or caretakers in a child's life, it's important to understand these feelings and try to help the child through this difficult experience.
In the aftermath of any death, it may take time to care for your child’s emotional wellbeing. However, it’s important to recognize their grief and be part of the healing process.
April 21, 2022 by Frances Kay