When the World Mourns Your Hero: Navigating Public Grief Personally


Mobolu Cocker

In 2020, many events took place that marked the year with a somber tone. The tragic passings of high-profile celebrities, while not as widespread as other tragedies, are included as some of those events. The natural response after hearing of someone’s death is sadness, but how does that sadness differ if the late public figure is also your hero?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a hero is defined as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”1 Heroes can be those we know personally (e.g., a parent or family member), or they can be distant, discovered through their prominence on a stage or screen. A fan, though having never met their hero in person, may interact with their hero in many ways, such as through television, movies, books, articles, interviews, and social media. Over time, these interactions can accumulate, resulting in a perceived proximity where we feel we know them and become invested in their actions and wellbeing. Researchers have called this “parasocial interaction” and have studied it mostly in the context of stars in the entertainment and sports industries, however, it can also apply to anyone with an online presence. Even though these interactions are often one-sided, they can feel as real and meaningful as in-person relationships.

Many people hold celebrities in high esteem; some even rely on their voices to speak on matters and issues that affect them most such as social injustice and political events. In a year where nothing went as planned, many of us looked to public figures to bring levity and entertainment; for example, tuning into their livestreams at record numbers. What happens when the object of these interactions passes away? If they are well-known, the internet will likely be flooded with heartfelt tributes from the time of announcement until days or weeks after, making the news hard to escape. While this would make any person sympathetic and even sad, it might have a greater effect on those that have developed a personal affinity for this figure: the loss and grief may feel personal because of their parasocial interactions over time. Since 2020, in general, was filled with tragedies, the unexpected loss of a hero may be even more difficult to overcome.

While there are many ways to grieve, sadness is common, which can affect us personally. Even without personally knowing your hero, they could have been extremely influential to you through their words and actions. It may be difficult to accept that there will be no more new projects, games, videos, interviews, or any other media to consume. In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross highlights that grief and loss occurs in five stages: denial & isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.2 Other feelings that may be accompanied with grief include hopelessness, anxiety, and lethargy. (Please note: These are merely guidelines and that each person experiences grief differently)

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The time of year may also affect how grief is experienced. If the loss takes place during the winter months, which have shorter days and frigid weather, feelings of grief may be exacerbated by seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Symptoms of SAD include low energy, oversleeping, appetite changes,  feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and guilt.3 In more serious cases, frequent thoughts of death and suicide can be experienced as a SAD symptom, which are also common when processing a death. Some strategies for coping with SAD and grief include going outside despite the cold weather, natural light, journaling, talking to someone you trust, and seeking professional help.4

A celebrity death that was particularly difficult for me to process was Chadwick Boseman, otherwise known as “The Black Panther.” The movie had a profound effect on me as it did for countless others, particularly because of the layers of representation it provided. As a child of African immigrants, it gave me a sense of pride to see Africa displayed with grandeur and excellence. Admittedly, this could be credited to the film’s writers and directors, but Chadwick’s character was the nucleus on which the film rested. Not only was his performance in Black Panther stellar, but we also discovered that he delivered it, as well as several other movies, while battling colon cancer. Beyond his talent and his strength, I regarded Chadwick as a good-natured, humble, and hardworking person, a description many tributes have since confirmed. His impact on the film industry, while short lived, will not be forgotten.

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© Walt Disney Pictures and Marvel Entertainment

Our society finds it easy to put celebrities on a pedestal. We often assume that their on-screen talent deems them worthy of unfettered attention and praise, which can sometimes be to our own detriment. While celebrity culture can be toxic, I would say there can be a lot of good in seeing someone thrive publicly in their profession. Their story can be a source of motivation and inspiration, particularly to those who lack any real-life role models. Moreover, they may draw our attention to issues and causes that we may have otherwise overlooked.

Losing someone special, regardless of the degree of interaction, is never easy. Although rarely discussed, celebrity deaths can have a real, lasting impact on our emotional state. Through the myriad of emotions that one experiences in the grieving process, I like to remember these words: “Death gives life meaning.” Chances are, if you consider them a hero, theirs was a life well lived, and you can still be inspired by the legacy they have left behind.

Edited by Jeffrey Lynham & Curtis D'Hollander 


1. Hero. Oxford Languages. Oxford University Press.

2. Kübler-Ross E. On death and dying. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company; 1969.

3. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)- Symptoms and causes [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseasesconditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651 

4. Schwartz A. The Holiday Season: When SAD and Grief Occur - Grief & Bereavement Issues [Internet]. Mentalhelp.net. Available from: https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/the-holiday-season-when-sad-and-grief-occur/